Published on Data Blog

Official Statistics in a Post-Truth World

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Photo Credit:  2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Report

I've been thinking about the role of data and digital technology in today's information landscape. New platforms and technologies have democratized access to much of the world’s knowledge, but they’ve also amplified disinformation that affects public discourse. In this context, the official statistics community plays a critical role in bringing credible, evidence-based information to the public.
A “post-truth” society is not an inevitable state of affairs that we must accept; it's an unacceptable state of affairs that we must address. To do so, we need reliable data that are trusted by the public. Institutions like national statistical offices must go beyond their traditional data production remit to become a trusted, visible force for reason in people’s lives by building trust, embracing relevance, and communicating better.

Earlier this year, the 2018 report of the “Edelman Trust Barometer” was released. It polled people from 28 mostly wealthy countries about how they got their news and what they thought of various sources and platforms. Among other things, the Trust Barometer found that:

  • Nearly two thirds of respondents agreed that the average person can’t distinguish good journalism from falsehood. Compared with previous years, the study finds that people are finding their peers with whom they often interact online less credible.
  • The poll noted a renewed confidence in experts, notably technical experts and academics – two thirds of respondents trust these people.
  • Amidst the rise of disinformation, there is a desperate search for what’s true. According to the Trust Barometer, “silence is now deeply dangerous – a tax on truth”, and it calls on every institution to play its part in joining the public debate and delivering information to the people.
Build trust
The public is now more aware than ever of issues related to privacy and ethics in data, and this awareness will continue to grow as technologies become ubiquitous. For the official statistics community, the challenge will be to embrace new ways of working while maintaining long-held and foundational beliefs in privacy and ethics. We need to be able to innovate without compromising public trust in our people, our methods and our data.
Trust in statistical offices varies around the world. Some are more independent of their governments than others, which gives them greater authority to take other parts of government to task for misusing or misrepresenting information. Rather than taking trust for granted, we need to continuously earn it, proactively defend it, and treat it as the foundation on which we operate. Trust is the currency with which we earn the opportunity to influence public discourse and decision-making.
Embrace relevance
Those of us who produce official statistics need to embrace relevance. This means both creating information that matters for people’s lives and asserting our expertise in a sea of new information sources that vary widely in quality. For example, key measures such as GDP growth are difficult or impossible for other institutions to publish with any kind of authority. And without nationally representative household surveys, you can’t analyze the relationships between wellbeing measures like education, health, nutrition, and geospatial information across the same households. We should play to these strengths and meet the needs of policy professionals who need these data. At the same time, there are often no trusted official measures for issues of importance to the public. In these cases, people tend to rely on gossip and rumor, particularly through social media. Unsurprisingly, this results in diminishing trust in information from the government, coupled with widespread societal misinformation.
National statistics offices simply won't be able to produce statistics for all the issues that people care about – the need for information is vast and no institutions enjoy limitless resources. Instead, producers of official statistics should embrace their role as crucial partners in a broader data ecosystem. Civil society organizations and the private sector are increasingly providing data and information services for citizens to make decisions and advocate for policy change. In this context, the official statistics community should focus on their comparative advantage of producing core statistics, and work harder to partner with other data providers.
Communicate better
To meet the Edelman Trust’s call for institutions to be visible, trusted communicators in people's lives, we must become students of human behavior. For too many statistics offices, communication has been relegated to a secondary activity carried out by a press department or a social media team. That way of thinking is doomed. For an idea of how to rethink it, look at my blog on Statistics Netherlands and their impressive communications efforts. They started from an understanding of cognitive science, the need for narratives and the power of emotion. As one of my colleagues likes to say, “numbers appeal to the mind, but stories appeal to the heart.”
First and foremost, we must give people the data they need in ways that are easy to consume and use. This will require more and better investment in our statistical systems, especially those national statistical systems that are yet to become fully independent, lack the necessary infrastructure, resources and capacity, and are thus most at risk of being left behind.
As we all continue walking into the unevenly distributed future that is already upon us, I'll leave you with three things I think that producers of official statistics need to consider while charting their future course:
  • Mindset. National statistical offices are no longer the dominant source of data for development. Given today's information market, we must reconsider our unique role and business model, both within the national context and the global official statistics architecture.
  • Partnership. We can't go it alone. To address market failures in the private and public sectors, to establish legal and quality standards, and to turn good data into knowledge and stories which in turn create a well-informed public, we need to learn to work with new partners.
  • Leadership. We need to commit to initiating the changes necessary to adapt to our new environment. New skills and competencies are needed, and the most important of these is the courage to take risks.


Haishan Fu

Chief Statistician of the World Bank and Director of the Development Data Group

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