"The more people are engaged with data, the more truth there will be"

22nd Aug 2012

After months of cautious manoeuvring from the Government, press reports last week suggested Downing Street may now accept the recommendation of the Dilnot Commission on the funding of social care, and establish a cap of £35,000 on the cost an individual can contribute towards their own care later in life.

It comes as welcome news for Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the Commission and recently-appointed Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, who praised the "functional power in statistical understanding" that can provide vital insight into policy debates such as these.

Speaking in an interview with Public Servant Magazine last week, Mr Dilnot provided a compelling case for why sound statistics and - crucially - properly understood statistics need to be at the heart of policymaking where the current process still falls short. He went on:

"In almost every area where we think about policy and think about trying to understand the world, there is more data which could be used, and used more effectively than is always the case. Policymaking has not quite caught up with just how accessible statistics have become"

"We should take the same attitude to public policymaking that we take to medical intervention, which is that we want to be very sure of what was wrong and equally sure that a reasonable person would expect that intervention would actually lead to some improvement." 

Full Fact is no stranger to this issue either, recently voicing concerns over the Government's repeated references to "120,000 problem families" despite the basis for this resting on shaky ground.

But it's Mr Dilnot's views on how his own area of expertise is widely misunderstood that serves up the most food for thought:

"It is easy to be panicked by the fact that the number of older people is going to rise, but it is important to remember that the number of older people has risen in the past as well, and we have been able to cope with that remarkably well because societies and economies can adapt.

"If the economy goes back to growing by 2.5 per cent on average then real GDP doubles every 25 years and quadruples every 50 years and that is the pattern that we have seen over the last 70 years. The issue then is what you choose to spend that on."

And not one for leaving claims without proper context, Mr Dilnot is keen to clarify:

"We hear a lot about the burden of ageing, but I have always said that the alternative to the burden of ageing is the burden of being dead."

However, Mr Dilnot made clear to Public Servant that his real concern was for the 'lack of public engagement' with statistics, not helped by the lack of good explanation of what the enormous amount of data in the public domain actually means, save for what media chooses to report it as.

Full Fact found this happened repeatedly last year with published migration statistics, with outlets confusing net migration with immigration and thus painting a misleading picture. Following our campaign the Office for National Statistics also moved to improve the quality of statistics on jobs for foreign workers.

As the magazine quotes, Andrew Dilnot's suggested solution is simple:

"The more people are engaged with the data, the more truth there will be. The more people there are who are using the data the closer we will get to an appropriate understanding of it"

Read the full interview with Public Servant Magazine here.