Power in numbers: A collaborative approach to exploring public perceptions of public good

Categories: Blogs, Public engagement, Impact

Written by Shayda Kashef and Dr Mary Cowan 7 October 2022

Many organisations working in or around data are driven by research that can help to answer some of society’s most pressing questions, with the ultimate aim of serving the public good. ‘Public good’ is a phrase commonly used within the context of data and statistics; as people working in this space, we have an understanding of this phrase, but what do the public think this means? 

This is an important question as the data we use for research and statistics either comes directly or indirectly from the public. So, this year, we worked in partnership to shed some light on this topic with the aim of developing a resource for others looking for similar answers. 

In the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), we have a vision that statistics will serve the public good. To inform our assessments of whether statistics are serving the public good, we engage with users of statistics to gauge their opinion on how well their needs are being served. Armed with that information, and the pillars of our Code of Practice for Statistics, we then work with statistics producers to help them realise the full benefits of their statistics. 

Similarly, at ADR UK our mission is to harness the potential of administrative data for research in the public interest. Administrative data is the public’s data: therefore, in addition to making sure this data is used ethically and responsibly, we have a duty to engage the public in how and why their data is used at every stage of our work. This is to ensure our work demonstrates trustworthiness and maximises the public benefit of administrative data research. 

At ADR UK and OSR, we rarely engage with people who do not use data or statistics. They often don’t have a reason to engage with us or perhaps even know we exist. But we believe the views of the general public, on what the public good use of data for research and statistics means for them, is integral to achieving our missions. 

For these reasons, we sought to engage with members of the public who had little or no formal knowledge of data or statistics. We recruited 68 participants from across the UK, in person and online, whose diverse, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives enabled us to interrogate our own understandings and practices in a new way. This is why this project provides so many important insights for us and others who work with data and statistics. 

We attended every workshop and heard our participants speak eloquently with passion and interest as they articulated their views on public good, and their ideas for what data and statistics could be achieving for society. 

While many people struggle to define ‘the public good’, considering it a vague term, our participants guided each other in thoughtful discussions where they teased out their ideas about what public good relates to. Ideas that emerged from these discussions included:  

  • the public should be involved in decision making to maintain neutrality and avoid politicisation 

  • data for research and statistics should aim to address inequalities 

  • the public good use of data for research and statistics should be clearly communicated and should minimise harm 

  • and best practice safeguarding frameworks should be universally applied for data sharing. 

You can hear directly from our participants in the expansions of these findings in the full report

This was the first time both of our organisations collaborated on a large-scale research project. Public engagement can be resource-intensive, but by working together we have achieved a milestone for both organisations which may have been impossible without the other’s support.  Both organisations are heavily invested in serving the public good, and by working together it allowed us to examine our findings from different perspectives and consider the implications from both a data and a statistics perspective. 

Publishing this report may signal the end of the project, but it is also another important step toward understanding how data for research and statistics serves the public good. 

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