Last Word

23.04.15

Stats, facts and evidence in the general election

Source: PSE - April/ May 15

Is there any hope of getting more evidence into political debates running up to May? Jonathan Breckon, head of the Alliance for Useful Evidence, explores the issues.

Surely inconvenient statistics and research go out the window when it comes to election time. It is much easier at this stage to promise some future billions on housing or tax gifts, and ignore the actual evidence. 

It would be unwise, however, for any politician to play too fast and loose with the facts. Campaign groups are marshalling to jump on any dodgy claims in the run up to the election. 

The UK’s Full Fact will be checking the statistics and evidence around health, immigration, education and other areas of social policy. They’ve set up a ‘war room’ of staff and volunteers who will work 18 hours a day, from 6am to midnight in the run-up to voting day. 

They have already built up quite a head of steam. Since launching in 2010, nearly every national newspaper – from the Sun to the Financial Times – and politicians of all hues have issued corrections at their request. It has many fans in the media too, from Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday, to David Dimbleby on BBC Question Time, and Juliette Jowit in the Guardian. 

There are others also waiting to pounce on the politicians and pundits. Sense About Science’s campaigns ‘Evidence Matters’ and ‘Ask for Evidence’ are asking voters to hold candidates to account on the research behind their promises. They will celebrate politicians who get it right, expose those who don’t, and debate the uncertainty in between. 

And the Alliance for Useful Evidence, a network championing the use of evidence in social policy and practice, is working with media outlet The Conversation UK to evidence-check the major parties’ manifestos. Manifesto Check will use the expertise of university-based academic experts and researchers from think-tanks. Campaigning groups are excluded. To control for biases of the experts, The Conversation is also planning on some blind peer review – where social scientists evaluate the quality of other researchers’ work without knowing each other’s identities. 

Some of the more traditional media and think-tanks are also zeroing in on the election. The Channel 4 News factcheck blog crowd-sources some of its expertise to make sure the public are feeding in and they are not missing out. 

One of the UK’s oldest independent research bodies, The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, has examined the macroeconomic implications of parties’ fiscal plans – the only independent analysis so far. And if you want a post-mortem on the Coalition government, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has launched an election website, funded by the Nuffield Foundation (which is also funding Full Fact), analysing what has happened over the course of this Parliament and the implications of the different parties’ fiscal policies. 

However, this movement doesn’t end on voting day. In the next Parliament, the drive for making smarter use of evidence will grow. The fresh intake of MPs will get training from bodies such as the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. A campaign by the Royal Statistical Society has also got statistically illiterate MPs to sign up for statistics training. 

Checking basic statistical facts is one thing. But how much can we look at the much less clear-cut research evidence to clarify politicians’ claims on social policy? Will, say, reforms to welfare policy have research to back them up? Will changes to teaching do any good? These are difficult, nuanced and contested areas with no easy answers. 

Research offers some important caveats and qualifications, but rarely crystal clear right and wrong answers. That might not be headline-grabbing, yet it’s still important for voters to know that politicians’ certainties are misplaced. 

Fact-checking is now a global movement, boasting 80 organisations worldwide. Where did this all come from? The trend started during the 2004 US presidential election with organisations such as Factcheck.org, and from 2007 PolitiFact, a Pulitzer prize winner. In 2012, these bodies publicised false claims by President Barack Obama’s team about Mitt Romney’s business record, and misleading Romney statements about the economy and the bailout of the car industry. The Republican and Democratic parties had to employ staff just to deal with the fact-checkers. 

Politicians will always make bold claims that are hard to back up with evidence. And voters will – and should – vote for the things based purely on values and beliefs, sometimes against what the evidence tells us. But to make democracy work, we have a duty to inform the public.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

Comments

There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment

 

public sector executive tv

more videos >

latest public sector news

Funding inequalities could destroy public services in rural areas

20/11/2017Funding inequalities could destroy public services in rural areas

Central government funding per resident in county authorities was almost 50% below large cities last year, with councils saying the situation cou... more >
Major growth investment includes £1.7bn city transport fund

20/11/2017Major growth investment includes £1.7bn city transport fund

The government has today announced that it will release £1.7bn of extra funding for cities ahead of Wednesday’s Budget. Prime mi... more >
Counties and districts clash over suggestion to scrap two-tier authorities

20/11/2017Counties and districts clash over suggestion to scrap two-tier authorities

A report suggesting that scrapping district councils could save £2.9bn a year has prompted anger from the District Councils Network (DCN). ... more >

interviews

‘The HSCN is the realisation of industry best practice’

30/06/2017‘The HSCN is the realisation of industry best practice’

Keith Smith, public sector business development manager at Virgin Media Business, tells PSE’s Luana Salles that health and social care orga... more >
HSCN: The enabler for a more joined-up public sector

26/06/2017HSCN: The enabler for a more joined-up public sector

Mark Hall, Chief Assurance Officer at Redcentric, discusses NHS Digital’s project, the new Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) and what b... more >
Maintaining the momentum for further devolution

25/04/2017Maintaining the momentum for further devolution

Ahead of this year’s mayoral elections, Lord Kerslake, the former head of the Civil Service, tells PSE’s David Stevenson why the argu... more >
New social care funding misses the point

13/04/2017New social care funding misses the point

Clive Betts MP, chair of the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee, reflects on the social care funding released in this year’s ... more >

editor's comment

25/10/2017Take a moment to celebrate

Devolution, restructuring and widespread service reform: from a journalist’s perspective, it’s never been a more exciting time to report on the public sector. That’s why I could not be more thrilled to be taking over the reins at PSE at this key juncture. There could not be a feature that more perfectly encapsulates this... read more >

last word

The importance of openness after Grenfell

The importance of openness after Grenfell

Following the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy, Lord Porter, chairman of the LGA, argues that if the public are going to have faith in the safety testing process then everything must be out in the o... more > more last word articles >

comment

Driving forward a healthier Scotland

10/11/2017Driving forward a healthier Scotland

Dundee City Council is leading the way in boosting electric vehicle (EV) uptake in Scotland, writes Rebecca Wallace from the local authority&rsqu... more >
A smarter approach to digital transformation

10/11/2017A smarter approach to digital transformation

Catherine Bright, Smarter Digital Services (SDS) manager, explains how a partnership of 12 councils across Kent and Surrey are jointly funding a ... more >
Delivering on estates

10/11/2017Delivering on estates

Sam Ulyatt, strategic category commercial director at the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), on how a new framework can help public sector organisat... more >
Open for business

10/11/2017Open for business

Clare Moore, senior specialist of valuation and disposals at the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), explains how public sector bodies looking to... more >
Funding inequalities could destroy public services in rural areas

20/11/2017Funding inequalities could destroy public services in rural areas

Central government funding per resident in county authorities was almost 50% below large cities last year, with councils saying the situation could quickly deteriorate, new research released toda... more >
Major growth investment includes £1.7bn city transport fund

20/11/2017Major growth investment includes £1.7bn city transport fund

The government has today announced that it will release £1.7bn of extra funding for cities ahead of Wednesday’s Budget. Prime minister Theresa May made the announcement, which in... more >

the raven's daily blog

Visual.ONS: How to compete with the big data aggregators

13/11/2017Visual.ONS: How to compete with the big data aggregators

Advertisement feature Christopher Gallagher, territory manager at SAS, explains how big data can be used by the public sector to find innovative solutions to common problems.  I have been really impressed by the work of Visual.ONS – the team at the Office for National Statistics, who are responsible for exploring imaginati... more >
read more blog posts from 'the raven' >