Ed Humpherson holds the UK government to account for the data that it publishes. He argues that chartered accountants have a key role to play in helping organisations and the public navigate the new information landscape.
Last November, chartered accountant Ed Humpherson wrote to the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, raising concerns that in briefings about the COVID-19 pandemic, the government’s “use of data has not always been supported by transparent information being provided in a timely manner”.
“As a result, there is potential to confuse the public and undermine confidence in the statistics,” he went on to explain, while recognising the pressures that the government was facing during the pandemic.
Being Director General for Regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation, it’s his role to hold the UK governments to account for how they produce, use and communicate statistics.
This is not a typical accountancy job, but it’s roles like his that give the profession a glimpse of the future. As society becomes ever more reliant on information and data, and it’s increasingly difficult to know what facts to rely on, Humpherson has built the skills and experience that many more in the profession will need in the next decade and beyond.
The issue of trust in information forms a big part of his core work. “We constantly come across these questions of information reliability, trustworthiness, public confidence, misleadingness, misuse, misinformation – it abounds,” he says.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged a lot of these issues. Humpherson has met “lots of people who have never been interested in data or statistics before, but who now know, to a number, what the COVID case rate per 100,000 is in their local area”.
“People are engaging with data and statistics in a way that hasn’t been seen before,” he says. And, as even a cursory look at social media would show, this engagement involves challenge and discussion about where the data has come from and its reliability.
Alongside demand for information in the past year especially, the volume has grown exponentially. “We’ve been really busy since the start of the pandemic because all four governments of the UK are every day presenting information, which aims to tell the public, essentially, how it's going. How is this thing? This weird, invasive thing that came into our lives, how is the fight against it going? How many people are affected? How sick are they? Are they getting better? How many people now have been vaccinated? And so on.”
Lies and statistics
Multiple scandals, from the Cambridge Analytica affair to accusations of voter fraud during the 2020 US election, have shredded people’s faith that they can or should trust the information they consume.
Humpherson agrees that people are struggling with these issues: “We're in an environment where individuals and organisations are overwhelmed with data, almost bombarded with new data from different sources all the time, and sometimes not being quite sure how to sift the good from the bad. How do I know which of these things – these numbers – that are being held at me are reliable and which are not?”
However, he’s not a pessimist about the future. He says, “I don't think that it's quite right to say it's all much worse than it ever has been. I just think it’s different.
“There's this great phrase that is sometimes used, which is, 'It's easy to lie with statistics'. But, of course, it's much easier to lie without statistics. And I think one of the things about an environment where so many people use data and hold data about certain events or topics is that things are much more verifiable. So, we now have an environment of fact-checkers, who very quickly expose things that are false. That's one reason to think that it's not as bad as it could be.”
The confidence business
The caveat to Humpherson’s confidence though is that we must learn to shape and manage this information landscape for the public good, and he sees chartered accountants as having a key part in that. He knows that his role is atypical, but also that he brings highly relevant and useful skills to it.
Talking about his job, he says, “I’m unusual in being a chartered accountant that moved from the world of finance into this world of statistical information at such a senior level. But it’s a perfect background to the things that I do.”
He says that this is because he uses his skills to help the public be more confident in trusting certain types of information. He cites Professor Christopher Humphrey from the University of Manchester who says that accountants are in the ‘confidence business’.
Humpherson says that chartered accountants should start to see themselves as working with organisations (either as employees or advisers) to “enable people to be confident in the information they present. Accountants are really good at knowing where the numbers are from, and what assurance there is that they make sense.
But there is a lot of other work on the signals that an organisation gives to its audience, which is less home territory for accountants at present.
“These are around: how does the organisation convey its trustworthiness? How does it convey that it's not acting in its own interests, but in the public's interests? Why is it doing things that look, in the short run, like they're painful for the organisation, but will make it more sustainable in the long run? All of those sorts of things, I think, need to be added to the core skill set, so that chartered accountants have a deep understanding of how and why people find information trustworthy.”
He sums up his advice for helping chartered accountants move beyond the familiar work of dealing with profit, loss, cashflow, reporting standards and the rest, by saying, “For somebody starting out, it is key to understand how important professional ethics are. When I was starting out, I was obviously trained and qualified, so I knew what the professional ethics were, but I didn't really see them as being a core part of what I did. I felt that was the technical side.
“For somebody mid-career, understanding uncertainty is really important. Being ever more comfortable with data sets that are dirty, that are incomplete, being willing to be sceptical about what your own information is. And then, finally, at more senior levels, I think it’s about being comfortable with a greater degree of public engagement, explaining what certain data and information mean, being open to challenge and thinking about how to be more publicly available.”