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Public trust in official statistics

Posted on 15 March 2019 by Hannah Morgan, Senior Researcher .

While there may be concerns around the levels of public trust in institutions and experts, both in the UK and worldwide, the British public still trust the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and believe in the independent nature and accuracy of the official statistics they produce. The latest figures also show an increase in public trust, albeit from a much lower base, in how the media and the government use official statistics.   

As part of the 2018 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, the National Centre For Social Research measured public views on trust in UK official statistics and the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The questions were also asked in 2014 and 2016, allowing for comparison of results. 

Despite the criticisms of how statistics were used in the EU referendum campaign (for example, see article), trust in ONS remains high.  The 2018 BSA survey found that 88% of those who expressed an opinion said that they trusted ONS - a similar level to that found in 2016 (90%) and 2014 (88%). We also asked about trust in some of the key official statistics produced by ONS - such as statistics around unemployment, inflation, economic growth and life expectancy, which help to understand changes in the population over time and are used to inform government policy. We found that 85% of those who expressed an opinion said they trusted these statistics, a similar level to those seen in 2016 (85%) and 2014 (81%).

Similarly, the public remain confident in the independence of official statistics. Since 2014, there has been a significant increase in those who think that statistics produced by ONS are free from political interference - almost three quarters of the British public (73%), compared to 66% in 2014.

The public also appear to remain confident in the accuracy of official statistics, both in general and in specific sets of statistics produced by ONS. A majority think that statistics from the Census (87%) and on Employment (71%) and Crime (70%) accurately reflect what is changing in the UK. These findings show that, despite the concerns around distrust in experts, people still believe in the independent nature of ONS and are confident in the quality of the statistics they produce.

Whilst this is good news for ONS, the public are generally much more sceptical about how statistics are used by the government and the media. As in 2014 and 2016, less than a third (31%) of those who gave an opinion felt that the government presents official figures honestly. Trust in the media was even lower, with just 23% saying that they agreed that newspapers presented official figures honestly. Despite these low levels of trust, there has been a small, but significant, increase since 2016 in trust in how both the government (26% in 2016, 31% in 2018) and the media (18% in 2016, 23% in 2018) use statistics. It will be interesting to monitor this trend in future years to see if it continues.

Two years on from the EU referendum, we did not see any evidence that public trust in ONS and the official statistics produced by ONS has been affected. When it comes to the government and the media, most of the public are still sceptical about their use of statistics but, even there, it looks like trust could now be on the rise.  

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