The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Statistics, perceptions and trust

Letting criminals go free and then losing track of them is just one reason why trust in government and government data has declined in recent years.

Other factors aren’t hard to find, including high profile examples of perceived government deception — most notably, the Iraq War — a growing awareness of ‘spin’ and an ever more critical media.

So the Chancellor’s announcement last November that he intends to make the Office of National Statistics (ONS) a ‘wholly separate body’ could be a real breakthrough for rebuilding trust in government information. Drawing on our work for the Statistics Commission (36 in-depth interviews with opinion formers), and that of our own publication ‘Who do you believe? Trust in government information’, we highlighted that some elements of trust in government and the data it produces have dwindled of late.

This really matters; especially when taking into account how important this issue actually is. Public confidence in official statistics underpins the very fabric of democracy. Without such statistics we are unable to make the fundamental choices about how we live our lives; and all this is going to become more important as the Government’s Choice Agenda is driven forward. Indeed, one of the great dangers facing the government now is not that its policies might fail but that one might succeed and no one will believe it.

So, the Chancellor’s announcement provides much to be optimistic about. Our studies suggest that by increasing the distance between government and the ONS there will be less inclination to view its outputs with suspicion. Opinion formers we engaged with even suggested that, by allowing it greater autonomy, the ONS may then be able to have the freedom it needs to collect the data which more accurately reflect the increasingly complex world in which we live.

Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism, however, is that this study really does demonstrate the power of qualitative research. We were placed in the unique situation of writing a qualitative report on statistics for statisticians — people whose conceptual framework when thinking about research is grounded in robust data, representative samples, and, ultimately, percentages rather than qualitative data.

The report made the case for a different hermeneutic framework for research: the idea that understanding the nuances of opinion can, in certain circumstances, be just as useful as a quantitative evaluation. Given how the findings have subsequently been used, for example, to help lay down the legislative framework for independence, it is gratifying to realise that government endorses this viewpoint.

 

Suzanne Hall
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2006