Measuring A Nation

“When moral posturing is replaced by an honest assessment of the data, the result is often a new, surprising insight.” – Steven D. Levitt

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The SNP conference was marked by several important topics that were thrashed out on the floor on the day and in the press and online in the weeks and months preceding. On the Growth Commission in particular, I was personally invested in a great deal of that discussion so I know how many tens of thousands of words were written around that topic.

The following day saw another topic discussed which was somewhat less well covered in the press was the motion presented by Agnes McAuley and Ronnie Cowan MP on the creation of a Scottish Statistics Agency.

 

I have to declare an interest here as it was my paper, Scotland’s Data Desert, which both directly inspired this motion (and we were cited as such in the run up to the conference) and formed the foundation of the key points made in support of it.

As mentioned in my paper, policy can only ever be as good as the data which underpins it. Where this data is gathered at a UK level, it may be sufficient for UK-wide policy but may have insufficient samples at a Scotland level to be useful. Even a “large” poll of 10,000 people across the UK may only sample 830 people in Scotland, less than is polled in a typical 1,000 person poll. This represents only 26 people per Scottish local authority so that data below national level is often even more sparse.

Compounding this is that the political priorities of Scotland compared to the UK may mean that questions that Scotland may wish to answer with statistical data is simply not a priority for the UK Government to look for.

Finally, as discussed in two of my recent CommonSpace columns, political events such as Brexit may – if not appropriately addressed – have severely compromised UK statistics and that the politicians involved were extremely unhelpful in their attitude towards such a threat (though the UK Statistics Authority itself was admirable in its reaction).

Many commentators in Scotland’s constitutional politics arena find the use (and misuse) of statistics to be a point of tension and have sought to drag this particular issue into the mud with them. I would prefer to take a far more objective stance. There are excellent reasons for a Statistics Agency beyond constitutional arguments and better provision of statistics in areas of genuine data gaps (such as Scotland’s balance of trade with the rest of the UK and with the world) can only serve to enrich any constitutional debates affected by them.

As both the proponents of the motion and my own paper have stated, it will be up for further discussion to determine whether the SSA will be a stand-alone, dedicated department charged with directly gathering the data and statistics that Scotland needs or it may be a collection of more decentralised departments – embedded within other Government departments such as healthcare or tax collection – along with a standards regulator and a public portal – a central website where statistics can be collected and displayed. It could also explore options to better draw upon the research and work of non-government bodies such as academia, think-tanks and other groups and to mark those statistics which comply with official standards with an appropriate kitemark. The UK Statistics Authority is already exploring options similar to this such as a charter where data producers can voluntarily comply with the statistics Code of Practice.

To say that I’m pleased that the arguments for an SSA won over the conference at the weekend is an understatement – and not just because it is based on my own work and the work of Common Weal to promote the idea. Better data will serve Scotland well in the coming years in a multitude of ways ranging from better policy, through better monitoring down to more informed debates about the state of our country and its future potential.

I look forward to working with the Scottish Government as the consultations on the shape of the SSA are developed. As with our other major policy successes such as the Scottish National Investment Bank and Scottish National Infrastructure Company, Common Weal stands ready to help the Scottish Statistics Agency develop and begin to serve the people of Scotland and elsewhere.


A version of this article previous appeared at CommonWeal.scot and CommonSpace.scot.

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