Covid and the war in Ukraine are tragically graphic illustrations of the need for trustworthy data

Back in the 90s, John Pullinger was involved in creating a set of principles for the best use of statistics. Thirty years on, he shares what the foundations he helped to lay continue to mean for the production of quality statistics around the world. 
"Unless there is trustworthy data that is accepted by all parties, people can be hoodwinked by illusions created by the powerful." Photo: Rokas Tenys/Alamy Stock Photo

By John Pullinger

12 May 2022

Current events in Ukraine provide a chilling reminder of how things were in cold war Europe before the fall of the iron curtain in 1989. What is happening in Ukraine also provides a tragically graphic illustration of the need for trustworthy data on which to form judgements about what is really going on and make well-informed decisions.   

The momentous events of 1989 provided an opportunity to develop guidance for the development of trustworthy statistics in all the countries of Europe, both long-established and emerging democracies. This was based on the collective realisation that without honest data, decision makers and influencers are flying blind when they make critical judgements that affect the lives of millions.  

 The culmination was the adoption in 1992 of the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics by ministers across the Economic Commission for Europe region. Following adoption in Europe, other regions too appreciated the value and universal applicability of the principles, which were debated at the United Nations Statistical Commission in 1993 and adopted at the global level at the special session of the commission in 1994. They have since been endorsed in a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. 

Thirty years on, the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics remain a collective manifesto for serving society with impartial, relevant and accurate information to guide decision making. 

The Covid pandemic has tested these principles in new ways as statistical organisations across the globe stepped up to provide policymakers with timely and accurate statistics and insights. The conflict in Ukraine has further reminded us that unless there is trustworthy data that is accepted by all parties, people can be hoodwinked by illusions created by the powerful. It is fitting now to highlight and celebrate the importance and impact of each fundamental principle on society and everyday life. 

There are 10 principles covering usefulness and availability of statistics, professional standards, presentation of statistics, misuse of statistics, sources of data, confidentiality, legislation, coordination within countries, international standards and international cooperation. This year, the United Kingdom is promoting all 10 principles and is playing a strong role in promoting two of them – Principle 4: Prevention of Misuse and Principle 7: Legislation.  

"Recognising when data has been misused or misinterpreted is key to maintaining public confidence in official statistics and supporting policymakers and citizens in making informed, evidence-based decisions"

Recognising when data has been misused or misinterpreted is key to maintaining public confidence in official statistics and supporting policymakers and citizens in making informed, evidence-based decisions. The UK’s Office for Statistics Regulation – the regulatory arm of the UK Statistics Authority – plays a unique role in addressing the misuse of official statistics. Recent, high-profile examples of interventions from OSR include trends in employment, use of statistics on child poverty, rates of Covid-19 prevalence and vaccine surveillance. The OSR has the confidence to challenge misuse of statistics without fear or favour, even if the challenge is to the prime minister.  

The OSR works within a community of other regulators, organisations such as Full Fact and journalists dedicated to helping us all differentiate fact from fiction in the claims made by politicians, advertisers and others. In the current digital landscape this task becomes ever more complex and vital. 

The need for trustworthy data was the driving force behind Winston Churchill’s demand to establish the national statistical institute of the United Kingdom in 1941. He called for a body of statistical information that could be accepted and used without question to guide national decision making at a dark and difficult time. 

However, strong legislation also matters to the integrity of statistics and public confidence in them. The UK Statistics and Registration Services Act of 2007 came about as part of wide-ranging constitutional and public services reform promoted by Conservative governments (including the citizens charter and open government) and Labour governments (including devolution of power and freedom of information). This legislation placed longstanding commitments to the fundamental principles, and the inherited philosophy of national statistics bequeathed by Churchill, on a statutory footing. 

The importance of statistical legislation has become even clearer since Covid-19 first emerged with increasing demands for openly available, timely and trustworthy insights into the progress of the pandemic and changes taking place in the economy, environment and society. 

Looking forward to the next 30 years, we can be confident of the demand for high-quality statistics to help decision makers make better decisions promoting peace, prosperity and a sustainable future and to enable citizens in all nations to hold governments to account for their promises. We can, I think, be equally confident that the fundamental principles will continue to provide the foundation for the development of statistical systems equipped to meet the many challenges they will face. 

In 1992, John Pullinger became director of policy and planning at the Central Statistical Office and led the creation of the Office for National Statistics. He went on to serve as the UK national statistician, head of the Government Statistical Service, and chief executive of the UK Statistics Authority from July 2014 to June 2019. He is currently chair of the Electoral Commission.


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