Why statisticians measuring wellbeing are unhappy
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.
"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?