Public confidence in ONS remains high as trust in civil service dips

Survey shows robust faith in official statistics but trust in civil service has fallen to 75%
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By Tevye Markson

14 May 2024

The public’s confidence in the Office for National Statistics remains high while trust in other institutions including the civil service and the government has slipped, according to a new report.

The National Centre for Social Research’s 2023 Public Confidence in Official Statistics survey, published today, finds some 87% of respondents trust the ONS, a small drop from the 89% who said so in 2021. Respondents who have used official statistics were more likely to trust the ONS than those who have not used them: 99% vs 82%.

In the same period, trust in the civil service has fallen by six percentage points, from 81% to 75%, and trust in the government has slipped by 11 percentage points, from 42% to 31%.

The survey also found that most respondents (83%) believe that official statistics are accurate, a higher rate than in 2021, 2018, 2016 and 2014. Meanwhile, 72% said statistics produced by ONS are free from political interference, similar to results in the last few surveys. 

The poll also found strong support for the idea that statistics produced by the ONS are important to understand our country, with 90% of respondents agreeing.

Respondents were less positive about the government and media’s presentation of statistics. Just over two-thirds of respondents disagreed that the government presents statistics honestly, while three-quarters disagreed that newspapers present statistics honestly.

The results also indicate that awareness of the ONS remains reasonably high, with 74% of respondents saying they had heard of the organisation, similar to the 75% figure in 2021, but lower than other public institutions such as the Department for Work and Pensions (88%) and the Bank of England (93%).

Awareness of the UK Statistics Authority – the non-ministerial department that oversees the ONS –and UKSA's other arm, the Office for Statistics Regulation, remain much lower, with 22% knowing the authority and 18% having heard of the OSR.

However, there was strong support for the role of each The vast majority (95%) of respondents agreed that it is important for there to be an independent body that speaks out against the misuse of statistics, and 94% agreed it is important for there to be a body that ensures official statistics are produced without political interference.

The NatCen figures, from a web-postal survey of adults aged 18 and above carried out from October to December last year, exclude those who did not express an opinion, including those who answered "don’t know".

Responding to the results, UKSA chief executive Sir Robert Chote said it is “reassuring that trust has remained consistently high over time among those who respond”. But he warned that “we shouldn’t be surprised if we see some change next year, given the challenges the system has had to confront in more recent months”.

The UKSA raised concerns earlier this year about the level of Cabinet Office support for the creation of a triennial statistical assembly. In a letter to the Cabinet Office, it said comments from the department that supported the plan “with conditions”, including no extra resources, suggested “the government is not vested in properly supporting UKSA to effectively deliver” a statistical assembly and “may not take outputs from the assembly seriously”.

Chote said the UKSA, together with the Royal Statistical Society, will convene a statistical assembly of producers, users and stakeholders later this year, “to explore how we can best serve the public good over the next three years”.

Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation at the OSR, said the survey provides “reassuring evidence that people do value statistics”.

“And just as importantly, it shows that people value our regulatory role in standing up against the misuse of statistics,” he said.

National statistician Professor Sir Ian Diamond added: “Now more than ever, it is vitally important that citizens know where to find reliable, impartial statistics and trust the Office for National Statistics to handle their data safely and responsibly. We will continue to work hard to maintain and build upon that trust as we continue to modernise and improve our statistics in the months and years ahead.”

A government spokesperson said: “This government is absolutely committed to the core values of transparency, integrity and professionalism.

“We routinely publish information to ensure we are fully accountable to the public and have launched an expansive programme of reform that will strengthen ethics and integrity in central government."

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