Archive | March, 2019

Who figures?

14 Mar

Time for another in my occasional series on issues of representation and parliamentary Select Committees.  This one concerns the grandly-named Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).  It works to examine constitutional issues, and quality and standards in the Civil Service.  This is important stuff, with relevance to public services and government accountability, as well, of course, to the trifling matter of Brexit …


Among its current inquiries, is one into Governance of Statistics.  This looks at how the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) is performing, in its role to promote, and to safeguard, official statistics, collated ‘for the public good’.  UKSA oversees government statistics, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the regulatory body which is responsible for the quality of statistics. The stated mission of the official statistics system is to ‘mobilise the power of data to help Britain to make better decisions.’  This mission affects us all – from considering which data to collect in order to inform decisions, through to interpreting statistics.  Official statistics, then, are an essential component in informing government policy and spending decisions, which cover all aspects of our lives. 


It’s therefore surprising, as Hetan Shah, head of the Royal Statistical Society, pointed out on Twitter, that, so far, PACAC has taken evidence from 8 men, with a further two slated to appear at the next evidence session.  Not a single female witness has appeared so far during this inquiry.  Shah referred to Caroline Criado Perez’s book on the gender data gap, which has just come out, and illustrates powerfully how women become invisible in systems where decisions are made on the basis of ‘default man’ – the average male.  His needs are met in everything from phone design to town planning, from drug formulation to public sanitation.  By overlooking the different physiques and lives of women, decision-makers can create systems with unintended consequences for women – from long toilet queues to medicines that don’t work effectively; from awkward phones to cars and public transport systems that are less safe for women.  Gender is an essential part of the picture, in deciding what is measured, and whose needs are catered for.


In response to Hetan Shah, the Chair of PACAC, Bernard Jenkin, threw up his hands and apologised, admitting that the Committee had got the balance wrong on this occasion.  In extended comments to Civil Service World, he said that the Committee had invited female experts to appear, but should have done more, when the women they approached initially were unable to attend.  Current guidelines state that 40% of witnesses appearing at Select Committee evidence sessions should be women. Clearly PACAC has fallen short this time.  


It’s not as if well-qualified women are absent from the field.  Ever since Florence Nightingale famously charted the causes of mortality among soldiers in the Crimean War, women have played a role in the statistics profession. Indeed, two of the four most recent UK National Statisticians, heading up the government statistical service, have been women.  However, economics and public policy as a whole, remain male-dominated at senior levels.  The Office for National Statistics itself, recently lost a sex discrimination case brought by a female economist who was overlooked for promotion, without being interviewed.  The ruling suggested that the ONS still has work to do, in providing equal opportunities for women.  It seems that we don’t just need better data, but better working cultures too.  In achieving this, women’s voices count. 



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