The UK Statistics Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics has today released its new ethics guidance on public good. This is designed to complement the existing ethics self-assessment tool and associated guidance and help researchers to fully consider and clearly articulate the public good benefits of their projects. Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the UK Statistics Authority and head of the Office for Statistics Regulation, considers how this guidance can benefit the research and statistical community.
The current Five-Year Strategy of the UK Statistics Authority, Statistics for the Public Good, places public good at the very heart of the work of the UK statistical system.
“Serving the public good” is easy to say. Yet there is surprisingly little work on what it means – either conceptually or in practice. That’s why we’ve launched the Office for Statistics Regulation’s research programme: what do people understand by the public good; how does it arise; and how can it be enhanced.
An early conclusion of this research is that there are multiple approaches to these questions, and that the system is still in the foothills of understanding the public good.
That’s why I’m delighted to see that the Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics has released new guidance on the public good.
Public good is one of the UK Statistics Authority’s six ethical principles, confirming that the use of data has clear benefits for the various user communities and serves the wider public.
The guidance starts from the recognition that considerations of public good can encompass many aspects of society and democratic life. It is not always easy to articulate clearly the value that projects provide in a succinct way that others can easily understand. The ethics guidance aims to address this need. It will help researchers and statisticians to consider the diverse ways in which their work can contribute to the public good, and empower them to consider the various elements of their projects that must be balanced in order to achieve this.
But consideration is only the first step.
These aspects must also be clearly articulated and communicated so that others can share in this understanding and a collective vision can be developed – regardless of background. Allowing others to see the benefits of the work is so important, at both an individual and societal level. This guidance fundamentally aims to provide direction and pointers to aid in this articulation, so that a wide stakeholder community can understand and assess these benefits.
But there is also a crucial point about the purpose of the guidance, a point so central that it could easily be overlooked: The overarching purpose is not about erecting barriers nor stopping things being done. The public good test aims to ensure that a case can be made for a project to be undertaken, rather than to create barriers or restrictions. It encourages people across the statistical community to emphasise the wider benefits in the work that they do – the so-called ‘so what’ – and communicate this effectively to diverse audiences. Although the public good test may well see some projects not proceed, these cases are likely to be a small minority. It’s much more about demonstrating a convincing case for the research – maximising the possibilities and benefits in all the research that is done and making sure that others can also see what these benefits are.
I hope that this guidance provides another step forward in helping to address this ambition.
Feedback on this guidance: If you have any feedback on this guidance, particularly how useful you have found it in the context of the work that you do, please contact the UK Statistics Authority’s data ethics team.