As you may or may not know, we are now well into The International Year of Statistics. Sitting here in 2013, we have so much data around us to help make better sense of the world. But are we making good use of all the information that's available? Do people believe it? Are they listening?
Reviewing the polling data on crime recently reminded me just how difficult it is to communicate messages about what is actually happening on the ground. Or rather, what our statistics say is happening. In the case of crime, the issues are of course complex. There are many different sources available. Some of the evidence then gets challenged. And the advent of the internet poses new questions about what we are looking to measure when we are talking about 'crime'.
What does appear to be clear beyond reasonable doubt, though, is that crime in this country is falling. It's falling in some other countries too, but the decline is particularly marked in Britain. Crime in England and Wales has halved since the 1990s, including an 8% fall in a single year. Anti-social behaviour has fallen sharply since 2007. Murder rates are at the lowest rates since 1978.
Have the public noticed? "Yes but no but" might be the answer.
On the one hand, it's clear that people in Britain are no longer as worried as they were about law and order. In Ipsos MORI's April Issues Index, some 15% singled out crime as one of the most important issues facing the country. In April 2007, it was the top issue on the list.
Post-2008, it is the economy that has taken over as the thing people are worried about, along with unemployment and immigration. Crime is now a middle-ranking issue, whether we're looking nationally or locally. Ask people about their own area, and they say that keeping levels of crime down is most certainly important; but the state of the roads, local jobs and facilities for teenagers are bigger priorities.
This is all a far cry from the 1990s. Twenty years ago, 95% of Britons were telling us that "the level of violence in Britain is on the increase". The average person in this country, over the coming 12 months, expected to see their car broken into and their home burgled. Our regular polling at the time included new questions on what the public thought about "vigilantes", as the debate moved on to whether people should be allowed to set up their own patrols in their area.
However, to say that it's no longer a burning issue is not quite the same as saying that people have put two and two together and have actually made their own diagnosis that crime is falling. Discuss the issue with people and you get a kind of "Yes you're probably right, it may be falling. I hadn't really thought about it". But then this initial reaction is often followed by vivid anecdotes, whether from personal experience, word of mouth, or indeed from what they have seen in the media, showing that crime is very much with us. Which in turn can make the official statistics seem rather less "real".
It's important to keep the local dimension at the front of our minds here. The latest Crime Survey for England and Wales finds just 10% saying that the "level of anti-social behaviour in their area has gone up a lot". But there is a sense that this may be the exception to the rule: some 49% believe that it has "gone up a lot in England and Wales". In other words, my area may be quite a safe place, but I am really not too sure about all those other places I hear about.
And this local/national outlook extends beyond crime. We've seen a similar pattern recently when looking at housing. Some 80% think there's a housing crisis nationally, but this falls to 49% when they think about the situation locally.
All of this leaves politicians with a headache.
At a time when there is so much bad news, how can they get a positive message like "crime is falling" across? (Of course they are not helped by the public's long-standing and instinctive distrust of anything politicians have to say). The evidence suggests that local police, talking to local people, in their local area, have a fighting chance of engaging with people about what's working and what's not. But getting the message across that improvements are being replicated right across the country is a much, much harder undertaking. Alongside the communications challenges faced by politicians and policymakers, it's a reminder that public understanding and trust in statistics is perhaps not what it could be - an issue Ipsos MORI will be debating with King's College London and the Royal Statistical Society later this month.
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