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Why statisticians measuring wellbeing are unhappy

Mark Easton | 17:00 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

Compared to nurses, police officers and binmen, statistics probably seem like a bit of a luxury. Certainly Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has suggested he thinks the data collection business is pretty much the definition of back-office, rather than front line.

Eric Pickles

"The money being spent on form fillers and bean counters could be far better spent helping elderly people to stay in their homes," he said last year, adding "or almost anything, in fact." True to his word, he recently announced he was scrapping the Citizenship Survey, a piece of work that has been conducted by the government every two years since 2001.

Roughly 10,000 adults in England and Wales (plus an additional boost sample of 5,000 adults from minority ethnic groups) were asked questions about their role as citizens: about their volunteering and participation, their faith and their feelings about their community. It was, in many ways, a measure of just how big the traditional Big Society could claim to be.

So, just as the government tells us that they want to expand the Big Society and focus on social well-being as a measure of progress, they bin the survey. It is a paradox that was pointed out to Mr Pickles in a letter today from the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar.

Pleading with communities secretary to "look again" at the survey, Sir Michael (an ex-Treasury mandarin) says he "fully recognises the severe pressures on Departments' budgets" but thinks that "insufficient account has been taken of the effect of discontinuing the Citizenship Survey".

"Your Department's summary report of the consultation it carried out said that the 'vast majority' of current users of the statistics expressed concerns about the Survey's discontinuation, noting that these concerns were particularly strongly articulated by other government Departments, voluntary organisations and academics; and noting the use of the Survey's data in providing evidence on the Big Society, extremism, cohesion and integration, fairness in the criminal justice system, discrimination, the impact of immigration, volunteering, well-being, and many other issues."

It is a letter which pushes every conceivable button that might make an impact with the architects of the coalition's reforms: "fairness", "volunteering", "immigration" and "well-being". With regard to the latter, Sir Michael reminds Mr Pickles that the National Statistician had noted the survey's particular "relevance to the major work programme to measure national well-being announced on 25 November 2010; and to helping the public to assess what the Big Society means."

These are subjects close the prime minister's heart - the public consultation on well-being he launched personally last year has only got a few more days to run. You can add your views on the Office for National Statistics website.

Mr Pickles department does not believe that national data is often required:

"We are keen to move away from costly top-down monitoring and measurement of local policies. Local providers are best placed to decide which data are needed to inform local priorities and monitoring."

The survey costs just over £4m a year to run, money Mr Pickles thinks could be better spent on local practical programmes and policy initiatives, particularly "those which directly promote integration and participation in communities".

It is an argument we may hear increasingly: let's not spend money on central bean counters when we can use it at local level (or not spend the cash at all).

The concern of the statisticians is that unless the country has access to consistent data, how are we going to know if the cuts, and localism and the Big Society are making matters better or worse? Without national figures, they might ask, how can Britain hold Mr Pickles to account?


  • Comment number 1.

    They don't want to know, not in a hard and fast statistical sense anyway. The coaltion can then say that everything is wonderful, is on course, and the sun will always be shining, on them, if not anybody else.

  • Comment number 2.

    Mark, good of you to highlight this.

    Here's hoping that your future blogs use reliable statistics. And not the discredited (LSE and Nuffield Trust) sort of statistics that you unfortunately used last week when you attempted to compare health across the UK.

  • Comment number 3.

    A citizen survey, we are spending £4m a year asking questions about

    1. Volunteering
    2. Faith
    3. Feeling in community

    Well faith is an individual matter and should not be the basis of govt decisions.

    Feeling in community is most definitely a local issue determined by local policies

    Volunteering - would it not be easier to simply ask the normal charities and organisations such as scouts whether they were seeing a trend in volunteers.

    Cannot help feeling that there is more than a certain amount of statisticians trying to justify own existance.

  • Comment number 4.

    The Big Society is just a slogan, or perhaps a prelude to workfare. In either case it is a political construct. We all know that politicians cannot stand evidence, just in case they are seen to fly in the face of it (see scientific advisory committees).

    This of course applies to all parties.

  • Comment number 5.

    £4m spent on bean counters sounds like a waste to me. What happens to the conclusions of these surveys? Do they impact at all on spending plans or policy? No wonder we have no money left if we keep spending it on pointless surveys.

  • Comment number 6.

    If it costs £4M to conduct a national survey, how much MORE, Mr P, will it cost several hundred local providers to administer and collect the same information ?

  • Comment number 7.

    What a weird set of questions !
    They may not like the answers or feed back that comes back from this sort of research plus the questions are so hairy fairy that they have no real input into policy.The big society just more pc correct sound bites, its like the boss asking is everybody happy and everybody nods in a agreement.
    More like 4m they have not got.

  • Comment number 8.

    Mr Pickles is right. There are far too many bean counters using my taxes to count beans for the benefit of other taxpayer-funded bureaucrats when the money would be far better spent on providing real services. And one wouldnt expect state statisticians to vote for fewer statisticians just as one doesnt expect to see state-funded actors lobbying for lower taxpayer subsidies!

  • Comment number 9.

    4 million pound probably is nothing compared to the amount government spends, but I think I'm glad to see it go anyway. I think a lot of statistics are just used to preserve the status quo, I think the questions are carefully designed to allow mediocre incompetent service providers to keep their jobs. If 10% of customers were dissatisfied with an ebay seller, nobody would use them, but if a government department has a survey done that says 90% of it's users were satisfied, they'd be touting that like it was fantastic.

  • Comment number 10.

    Why don't we just all follow the example of John James Cowperthwaite, where we collect absolutley no statistics (not even GDP) at all!

    After all, he did say that if a government knows what its people are doing, its likely to fiddle with their business

  • Comment number 11.

    My comment at number 4 has been 2referred for further consideration".

    How strange. I'll try again, in case the moderation takes a while.

    Interesting post, Mark, glad to see you've covered this.

    Mind you, I would recommend that next time you use statistics you use ones that are reliable. Not like the HEAVILY DISPUTED statistics from the Nuffield Trust and others which you used when comparing UK health systems last week.

    (There, surely nothing unruly in that post?)

  • Comment number 12.

    Of course ignorance is cheaper than knowledge....

    And ignorance about the effectiveness of Government policies both saves money and embarrassment...

  • Comment number 13.

    Give with one hand and taketh with the other in words and deeds.

    You would have thought that the tories would have learnt their lessons since the last time they were in office. But, no the saying "same old tories" has been ringing in my ears for some time now and I think it's getting louder.

  • Comment number 14.

    i heard last year on BBC Radio 4 about independent research that showed we reached our peak of happiness in the uk during the 3 day week and it was downhill thereafter because the gap between rich and poor rose steeply so why dont we believe research that has already been done? - Given the recent demonstrations it would be hard to conceive that we were happy bunnies & what might politicians do about it if they did find out we were deeply unhappy with our society? be sad for us?

  • Comment number 15.

    Step one: Introduce measures that will make people miserable and a few token headline grabbing projects that will achieve little.

    Step two: Abolish the watchdog in charge of documenting this so no one has figures on how much of an ideological crusade the "big society" is.

    Step three: More pies for Pickles.

  • Comment number 16.

    on the subject of the big society, people have been struggling to find a meaning.
    as it is cameron.s vision which is quite opaque.he to has been struggling to define
    it. i my self think it is a mullti facetted concept "ie" my take on it could be that modern society has to change its structure. people who cant find proper work,should
    be able to volounteer to work in cooperatves for example building trades,using skills they already have , on pilot scheme,s. rather than just waiting to pick up dole money, that might be fast diminishing

  • Comment number 17.

    So that is 19 years of Conservative leadership and 19 years of where did all of those Trade Union protesters hide all the paperwork with 13 years of Labour leadership and 13 years of Trade Union protesters complaining that they are not getting enough money to do a fair days work with a further 5 more years of a hung parliament with a Treasury memo that there is "no more money" for frivolous expenditures. Might as well just give 4 million pounds to Free Tibet and be done with the lot of them.

  • Comment number 18.

    Otherwise unemployed (and possibly unemployable) bureaucrats end up involved in this sort of pointless expensive nonsense. It's nailing raspberry jam to a wall. The results can have no effect on Govt. policy but keep sociologists occupied until the next exercise in pointlessness.

  • Comment number 19.

    I can appreciate that statisticians are unhappy due to the fact they got it so wrong. They assumed that we would welcome an open door policy to the EU. They assumed we would welcome finding it difficult to get doctors appointments, homes, even god forbid jobs because we had had our very own tsunami of people coming from the EU before the appropriate jobs, homes, even space was available for them
    yes. They are unhappy because now they need to solve a problem that they have allowed to accululate

  • Comment number 20.

    It is the cuts that are making the population unhappy along with the fear of losing jobs...Now who do I invoice for the insight? I am a bit cheaper that a whole dept. but not that cheap.
    And this insight will also be ignored

  • Comment number 21.

    Conservatives stand for BIG SOCIETY, SMALL GOVERNMENT. What's the bloody mystery? Does anyone know what that means? It means BIG SOCIETY, SMALL GOVERNMENT. Get it? Hells bells, all those who are confused by the idea are clearly being deliberately obtuse lefties.

    For the hard of thinking it means individuals take a greater responsibility in their lives, with minimal government interference and bureaucracy. Volunteering, greater community involvement, it's all part of the same thing.

  • Comment number 22.

    Good riddance to bad rubish. We really don't need these stats, or the commentary that assists them. National stats are easily massaged to fit what you want them to say; Unemployment is up, call it 5 different kinds of unemployment, and then identify that core unemployment is down.

    The opposition say the stats a rubbish, the government say they are a justification for a policy they'd already decided on. Stats are a waste of time, they are not helping us at all.

  • Comment number 23.

    Anyone who takes publicly available Government statistics seriously nowadays needs to stop drinking the kool aid.
    Internal eyes-only stats will always have value, since there will be no political skewing of the information prior to public release.
    As far as codes of practice are concerned, these are internally generated defence mechanisms useful for plausible deniability purposes when there are legal and political issues arising via queries from independent outside third parties.
    The usefulness of "procedures" for the purpose of integrity is highly dubious, since the entire process is in-house, and therefore fatally flawed in both it's concept, execution and implementation.
    Or to put it technically.
    There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

  • Comment number 24.

    I've been impressed by how this government have seemed to want to be more strategic in their approach, and having a rigorous way of testing how things are going is an integral part of that. However, there is always a danger that because it isn't 'front line' it won't be seen as important. But if it helps to target resources, then it will save more than £4m in the long run, as well as having a non-monetary impact. The Indices of Deprivation, revised and released a couple of weeks ago, is a prime example of this, as it helps ensure resources (government, trusts and some private investment too) are focused on the most deprived areas, as well as giving evidence about what types of deprivation are the most acute in those places. For this reason it is imperative that these kind of things are maintained, as the benefits far outweigh the costs.

    It's important to say though that there are quite a few surveys at the moment: the two I've mentioned, plus the Census, the Labour Force Survey, a well-being consultation under-way and life chance indicators recommended by Frank Field and tentatively announced this week by Nick Clegg - there's a danger that we end up with too many statistics and none of them comparable. At the same time, it is tempting to introduce new surveys to replace old ones (just as governments do with schemes and policies) but this just means the previous work is wasted as they aren't continuous and, again, incomparable.

    I suggest the creation of a government department/independent body for data, which would oversee the collection of data, its protection, and its use by other government departments and other bodies. As part of it (or instead of it in the meantime) the government must do an overall review of the statistics it collects, decide on the indicators it wants to use, and then commit to them for the foreseeable future, to allow comparisons and monitoring for years to come.

    This is the kind of strategic view we've seen glimpses of, but if this news story is anything to go by there's a risk that popularist, short-termist rhetoric will see this vital work dismissed and the benefits missed.

  • Comment number 25.

    Once information was collected in order to act.

    Now it is collected in order to control.

    There is a very dangerous difference.

  • Comment number 26.

    RW49 is right. They don't want to know. More crucially, they don't want US to know. They don't want us knowing, or even caring, what other people feel or care about. They want us to just swallow the wooly, Big Society, 'do it for yourself' propaganda wholesale. Knowledge just gets in the way of us buying into politicians' more stingy or manipulative ideas. They know that in the absence of information they can rely on our own narrow self-interest and short memories. 'Trust me - I'm a politician'.

    Stingy? £4M a year is absolute peanuts. It's about 0.0006% of the total 2010 government budget of £661Bn or about 0.004% of the 2010 welfare budget. It would pay for about one and a half or at best two Care Homes or Hospices for the whole country. Say about 30 - 50 infirm people, or one person per UK Local Authority. Put another way it would buy about 5% of the roughly £80M cost of just one of the RAF's 144 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, or about eight Cruise Missiles.

    Maybe we shouldn't know or care about that either. 'Ignorance is Strength'. - Orwell/Big Brother

  • Comment number 27.

    Pickles does not care for the nuances of argued cases. He is the government's storm trooper in the slash and burn campaign to return UK public sector to the Thirties. But it is just conceivable Cameron will tell him to do a 'Lansley'

  • Comment number 28.

    The Rt Hon Mr Pickles doesn't strike me a s a man much given to listening to other people, let alone acknowledging that they might have an opinion worthy of attention. My fear is that he is cast from the mould of the very worst of idealogues, akin to those found during Mrs Thatcher's reign.

    Whilst he feels the wind at his back, I do not foresee any change of tack. Nevertheless, I predict troubled waters ahead for the Honourable gentlelman when the conditions start to change for the worse - which they inevitably will during the coming months; possibly sooner than he might think - and then I predict his unbending nature will be his undoing. I am looking forward with a sense of anxious anticipation for that moment when Mr Pickles makes that fatal miscalculation, and makes one of his off-the-cuff pronouncement's that will see him consigned to the backbenches.

    Keep it up Mr Pickles, those of us with a shred of human comapssion and decency applaud your headlong dash to the precipice - just don't keep us waiting too long.

  • Comment number 29.

    As I understand it the ONS is 'independent ' in the sense that it is responsible for carrying out is work to the highest standards of its profession. But much of its work is commissioned by the Government. And some of it is curiously presented. The unemployed are actually people who say they are looking for work and can take it up if offered in a given time period. They are work seekers and can come from any of the groups in the 9 million people who are not currently working. So why not call them that. Then we can discuss who they actually are.

    In the area of 'communities' there are local but unreliable sources about the number of volunteers. In Greater Manchester the last figures I can find is that there are 1.5 million volunteers in a population of 2.5 million. I am skeptical. So if political propose to have set of policies designed to increase peoples participation in their communities by among other things volunteering they ought to have some means of evaluating this.

    Actually the number of volunteers is likely to fall as the back office needed to support them is cut. Age UK's dwindling support for their 'lonely old' visiting programme show this process at work.

    But is Eric actually in favour of the Big Society He speaks a lot about it. but does he walk the talk? He certainly is reluctant to find out if out is working.

  • Comment number 30.

    posts 28 and 29 seem to singing out of the same song sheet as myself.
    epecialy of the dire times ahead. i,not being a doom and gloom, man seeing the
    dificulties the coalition.are getting thermselves into by going down blind alley,s
    trying to sort out the economy? there are many who believe while things are bad
    they will try and push through as much of their own negative polices as they can at any expense.

    if it has to come to a no confidence vote ! or the coalition desolves. in the near future. rather than have a snap general election which would destroy us in the money markets, we could have a full no nonsense coalition. till the country is on it,s feet. were all in this together would mean something!

  • Comment number 31.

    Would looking at Mr.Blobby make anyone happy? I mean..

  • Comment number 32.

    21. At 00:34am 9th Apr 2011, I_am_I wrote:
    "Conservatives stand for BIG SOCIETY, SMALL GOVERNMENT. What's the bloody mystery? Does anyone know what that means? It means BIG SOCIETY, SMALL GOVERNMENT. Get it? Hells bells, all those who are confused by the idea are clearly being deliberately obtuse lefties.

    For the hard of thinking it means individuals take a greater responsibility in their lives, with minimal government interference and bureaucracy. Volunteering, greater community involvement, it's all part of the same thing."

    No so much the slogan that`s confusing,it`s the delivery.

    Public services,especially the NHS is the fulcrum of citizenship where rights and obligations meet.Government policy puts this at risk, along with education and welfare.

    Minimal government interference impacts most heavily on the poor who depend more on public services.

  • Comment number 33.

    The reason he doesn`t like statistics is wanting to hide the consequences of government policy.

    As for happiness,Aldous Huxley wrote it was a by- product.A good work and love life is enough for most of us.

  • Comment number 34.

    I can only suggest that Mr Pickles takes his own advice on not wasting money. Why bother instituting a (costly) consultation procedure if you have every intention of paying absolutely no attention to what it says?
    The 'consultation' revealed that a large majority of respondents thought the survey useful and wanted to keep it. Mr Pickles decision - no more survey.
    Further to this the Coalition government is currently busy arranginging its own 'well-being' (happiness) survey which appears to be an even more outrageous waste of money but which no doubt will be tailored to their own political requirements. Are you going to protest about that Mr Pickles? Dave may not be pleased.
    We seem to be in the position that a currently well regarded statistical exercise is to be canned and replaced by one whose value is completely unknown. What or whose purpose could that possibly be in the interests of? Orwell like, our current batch of pigs just can't wait to morph into farmers. For us it's the knacker's yard.

  • Comment number 35.

    I would think by now with all the comments expressed here and elsewhere that the government should have a very clear idea about what the public want and about how unhappy people are that the goverment is failing to address the issues that concern them.

    You don't really need any expensive surveys not to know:-
    a) that we need to get unemployment down rapidly
    b) that the education system needs to prepare pupils better for the world of work
    c) that Parliament & the EU Parliament need to reformed radically to reduce costs
    to the nation
    d) that criminal punishments need to be more effective
    e) that a universal state pension needs to apply to both existing and new pensioners
    f) that first time buyers need special arrangements to allow them to purchase
    their first property
    g) that the NHS needs to reformed to end the postcode lottery for patients

    No doubt there are many other things that are obvious to forum members but not obvious to government. Maybe we should each charge a consultancy fee paid for out of the salary of the government minister paid to know what we know.

  • Comment number 36.

    I wish people would stop using the term "faith" when they mean "belief". They are 2 very different things. I could believe the sky is purple but I have no faith that when I look out the window it will be. But I suppose the chances of getting the religo-nuts to change are about as high as a worthwhile government survey or getting Mark Easton to stop writing New Labours propaganda output...

  • Comment number 37.

    How about we just assume that the BIG Society is too big to serve little people - like the huge investment banks are too big and too greedy to serve the needs of the little people? Then we can assume that statisticians measuring well-being are unhappy because they (literally) cannot find any happiness to measure.

  • Comment number 38.

    What has Eric Pickles got against the elderly?

    Do they get in his way when he's trying to force his way into a restaurant?

    He said: "The money being spent on form fillers and bean counters could be far better spent helping elderly people to stay in their homes"

    As an elderly person myself I object to those in society who think the elderly should be discouraged from going out. He's no spring chicken himself. It's a disgrace.

  • Comment number 39.

    BS is a scam.

    Recent independent survey - not trumped up by this government - shows only one in ten people have any intention of volunteering.

    The tories are failing and this is just one more failed policy they do not want exposed by their own survey.

    Scrapping the survey is confirmation they know BS has failed.

  • Comment number 40.

    Sociology, it was once said, is the study of one group of people who likely don’t want to be studied, by another group of people with no right to study anyone else in the first place.
    Someone else once remarked that if you want to be happy for a short while get high on something.
    If you want to be happy for a bit longer, get a pet, longer still, get married.
    If you want to be happy for life, get a garden.
    Maybe Cameron/Clegg et al, if they are genuinely interested in well being, should be reading and paying attention to Oliver James.
    Clearly having isn't happiness but just as clearly, authentic friends and family are and that involves caring. So perhaps there is more to genuine Volunteering, rather than these Friedmanite/Thatcherite/Blatcherite con men looking for services on the cheap, than many of us realise.

  • Comment number 41.

    We'd be happier if governments stopped telling us what to eat and drink and asked no more ludicrous questions.

  • Comment number 42.

    Communities Secretary Eric Pickles makes in feel unhappy.

  • Comment number 43.

    Animal farm politics in the U.K. work untill YOU drop for no money ?we will still have a big smile on our face. The Con/fibsdems new spin for the Big Society. keep taking the happy pills.

  • Comment number 44.

    I've spent some time in Denmark, reputedly one of the happiest countries, and there are some noticable differences. Denmark is not a 'neoliberal' or consumer-driven capitalist society. People express themselves directly and interact with each other rather than living in an atomised society where our expression is channelled into consumer choices. At the end of the day you get the society you deserve.

  • Comment number 45.

    yip something else we did not need or want, glad its been cut, glad its gone, timewasting jobs for the boys full of hot air and big suits with large expense bills.

  • Comment number 46.

    It would help if they looked at 'Happiness' from a proper perspective rather than from statistics. Peoples happiness stems from satisfying thier expectations, over the last 25yrs or so peoples expectations have risen (Must own my own house, Must go to Uni get a degree and get a well paid job, you can be anything you want and have it all, etc.).

    This is particularly true from the last NuLab Gov't pushing these myths, so a lot of people now have unatainable expectations of life, which when they realise this makes them unhappy and resentful.

    Bottom line - lower your expectations and when you reach them you will be happy, then you can reassess what you want and change them accordingly.

  • Comment number 47.

    The fact that there's a boost in numbers for ethnic minorities says it all, really. The exaggerated attention and concern lavished on them, at public expense, is one of the UK's biggest policy mistakes. A huge waste, which really irritates a lot of people.

  • Comment number 48.

    the man with the pie in his hand doe's not want any department checking on the british peoples feelings on happiness,now this shower are in power again.they do not do happiness, the are the arbringewrs of political misery.that is thier vstock in trade.they are thatcherites,true to every principle their beloved hilda believed not be silly,"HAPPINESS" with the tories in charge don't make me laugh.the only one's who are happy are the usaual suspects.THE RICH....

  • Comment number 49.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 50.

    Perhaps there is no such thing as the big society?


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