People don’t understand economic data – and that’s very much the fault of the Office for National Statistics

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The Financial Times has reported this morning that:

British people “lack a basic understanding” of economic statistics such as unemployment or the government's deficit, and at the same time mistrust official data, a hard-hitting report funded by the Office for National Statistics concluded on Wednesday.

The report, produced by the ONS's think-tank, the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence, found that a large proportion of the people they surveyed had little ability to judge how well the government or the UK economy was performing.

I am not in the slightest bit surprised by this.

To be kind to it, the Office for National Statistics website is dire. Finding even the most basic of information is exceptionally hard. To find an explanation for anything usually requires an understanding of the bizarre coding system used in the national accounts framework, which is ludicrous in itself, and incomprehensible to more than 1,000 people in the country, I suspect.

And the ONS does not always get its data right, either, which is a minor side issue.

But they're not alone in producing hopeless information. Until a couple of years ago the Treasury produced a useful monthly publication called te Treasury Pocketbook. They have now abandoned it. I know not why.

And the Office for Budget Responsibility replacement is not that good.

Is it really beyond the wit of the OS to publish a monthly pocketbook of economic data in an accessible form, with links to  accessible explanation? I think that the minimum we should expect from them.

And when I say accessible form I mean that the data should be supplied in an appropriate format, by which I mean in money terms, or headcount terms, and so on, both real-time and inflation-adjusted plus per head of population when appropriate. The obsession of the ONS and OBR with reporting all data in percentage formats is absurd: that assume you know the value of the denominator and they never disclose what that is or where to find it and so, except for the deep insider, most information supplied by these organisations is meaningless. People - politicians, commentators, the public - want comprehensible data. And this may come as a shock to statisticians, but most people cannot comprehend percentages of any sort.

In the meantime, if you need to find data always start with the House of Commons Library - it's very often the most accessible source right now. But that's a damning indictment of the ONS, The Treasury and the OBR.

Unless, of course, the plan is to keep us in the dark. And maybe it is.

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