On the face of it the Homes and Communities Agency statistics for affordable housing starts are absolutely awful.
I’m going to go out on a limb and accept that they look significantly worse as a snapshot of what is going on than the reality on the ground.
The data suggest that the starts are back-end loaded within the financial year, so a drop in this half of the year would have been expected. Obviously this drop was greatly exaggerated by administrative changes as a new programme was introduced.
But, for all that, there will be plenty who rightly remain very concerned over a hiatus in construction work and the delivery of much-needed affordable housing.
However, my concerns are simpler.
Each time these statistics have been published back to November 2009 the HCA has seen fit to publicise them through press releases.
Indeed on June 14, 2011 the PR headline read: “HCA exceeds its end of year homes targets.”
This Monday the HCA put out a press release welcoming the housing strategy.
On Tuesday it uploaded onto its website its six-monthly performance statistics. They are not easy to find unless you’re looking for them.
However, the five press releases now up on the website for that day do not include one pointing to the performance statistics.
I will not seek to speculate why.
I will say however, that it seems to me to have been a PR mistake not to issue a press release, if only because it would have avoided awkward questions regarding openness.
Recognising how bad these figures were, it would seem sensible PR to address the issue head on and explain forcefully and fully what lies behind the exceptional collapse in affordable housing starts.
I asked the press office why they had not issued a press release.
The reasoning I was given was they didn’t “need” to do a press release, as they had published the statistics on the website. This, I pointed out, did not answer the question of why every other time but not now.
I was told there was a lot going on and the press office attention was very much absorbed by the release of the housing strategy.
I was told that there was no one who made an active decision to publish or not publish the figures.
I am sure that the many if not most people would brush my concerns away with a cynical: “Well you wouldn’t expect them to publicise bad news?”
But this is a public body, spending public money. It has a duty to the public, as its shareholder, to inform it even-handedly of its performance, good or bad.
Furthermore, statistics are essential tools used by business and policy makers in a bid to make informed and better decisions.
To promote “good news” statistics and bury “bad news” statistics distorts our understanding of the world.
It is hard enough trying to work out what is going on without people seemingly wafting smoke and reflecting mirrors into our eyes.
I would have been less concerned if this issue had not cropped up last week, ahead of the housing strategy release.
Last Thursday I was irritated with the communities department (DCLG) because the release of its house building figures were delayed and I found the press office less than helpful when I called to get hold of them.
When they were published they were released in a place I have not in the past used, however obvious it might have been. They too were not encouraging figures.
I chose then not to rant on about suppression of bad data, as I feared I might have been going over the top and may well have been partly to blame.
I did, however, make reference to the absence of a comment on the figures from Grant Shapps, in the light of the excessive praise he had sought for his policies when the rather flattering May figures were released.
I and others pointed out then that he was most likely misinterpreting the figures. It would seem on the basis of subsequent data he was.
I was rather curious too when Mr Shapps asserted on the BBC’s Question Time last week that house building had gone up 25% under this Government. That can fairly be dismissed as a highly selective interpretation of the data or a view bordering on delusionary.
It is troublesome making sensible judgements on the basis of figures that are tough to interpret.
Hiding them, distorting them and making false claims about them does no one any favours.
We are in an economic crisis of huge proportion. The public needs to be fairly informed.
Business needs more than ever to have a clear idea of what is really going on. It needs the clearest information that the Government and its agencies can provide.
People’s jobs and futures rest on the decisions managers and policy makers take.
If they are provided with duff information or sheltered from important “bad news” they will make bad decisions.
And we will all suffer as a consequence.
Transparency, Honesty, Accuracy, Timeliness. THAT is what we deserve from the state and its agencies when it comes to statistics.