Review of economic statistics

HM Treasury’s Productivity Plan announced an independent review of economic statistics to be led by Professor Sir Charles Bean.

Speaking today, Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said:

“Professor Sir Charles Bean’s review provides an important opportunity to help meet the ongoing challenges of the statistical measurement of the modern economy so that UK economic statistics inform better decision-making in the years to come.

“The Statistics Authority supports the establishment of the review which will build on the established principles of statutory independence for UK official statistics, and looks forward to reading the recommendations of the review in due course.”-

For media enquiries about this Statement please contact: 07786 892263 or 07411 212300

Numbers and public policy

 

The Authority’s Chair, Andrew Dilnot, gave this year’s Institute for Fiscal Studies annual lecture, Numbers and public policy: the power of official statistics and statistical communication in public policy-making, on 5 November 2012.

Andrew was director of IFS between 1991 and 2002.

The full audio transcript, and accompanying slides, are available by clicking on the related link on the right-hand side of this page.

Numbers and public policy

 

Professor Sir Roger Jowell CBE (1942 – 2011)

It was with great sadness that the Authority Board and its staff learned of the death, on 26 December 2011, of Professor Sir Roger Jowell, CBE, the UK Statistics Authority’s Deputy Chair (Statistical System).

Sir Roger made an enormous contribution to all aspects of the work of the Statistics Authority, in particular the Authority’s independent scrutiny of UK official statistics. Sir Roger will be greatly missed by all of us.

Between November 2008 and December 2011, Sir Roger occupied the Authority’s Deputy Chair post, advising and supervising the Authority’s regulatory work, in monitoring, promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of all official statistics across the UK.

In 1969 Sir Roger co-founded Social and Community Planning Research (SCPR), which is now the London-based National Centre for Social Research. He was Research Professor at City University London and was the Founder Director of its Centre for Comparative Social Surveys.

In 2005 he and his team won the Descartes Prize “for excellence in collaborative scientific research”, and he was knighted for services to social sciences in 2008.

Speech by Sir Michael Scholar to the Government Statistical Service Assistant Statistician/Statistical Officer conference, 8 December 2009

Encouraging Innovation and Building Relationships

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today.

It is now two years since I last spoke to this gathering, and I can see that there are lots of new faces among you. Then, I had only recently been appointed as Chair of the Statistics Authority, the Statistics Act was not due to come into force for another few months, and I was very much at the beginning of a new journey in the world of official statistics.

I was struck by one of Jil Matheson’s first slides which set out her overall vision for the GSS – “to be a self-confident group producing high quality statistics, analysis and advice that are widely-used by decision-makers”. For me, this sums up what the GSS should be all about – confidence, working together, quality, a user-focus, with your work contributing directly to the making of informed decisions.

But who exactly are these decision-makers? I am reminded of a conversation I had recently with someone who I used to work with quite closely. He said that he remained of the view that the fundamental point of official statistics was that they are collected for the benefit of government, not for anyone else.

Of course, he was completely out of date. He was living in the world of the 1980s, the world of Lord Rayner’s “Doctrine” which sought to cut official statistics down to size so they were to be collected only if they were useful to those who paid for them: – in other words, government departments.

That world was swept away in the 1990s – and its demise was signed, sealed and delivered in the 2007 Statistics Act. It is the guiding principle of the Statistics Act that we must ensure that official statistics are collected and published to serve the public good. In the Authority we are following a very broad interpretation of what “public good” means. Our primary task must be to find out who the users, actual and potential, of official statistics are, and what use they could or should make of them. I am not convinced that everyone working in official statistics has fully accepted this new world. In the view of the Statistics Authority, what you should all do – in your work as statisticians – is to keep a constant eye on the users and the uses of the very many important statistics that you and your teams produce.

I know from personal experience that this can be quite difficult at times. As some of you may know, before I retired from the Civil Service, I held a number of posts in Whitehall, including five years as Permanent Secretary at the then DTI. Even at that time it was a large department with a large statistical team. When you are working in an environment like that, working very closely with lots of other civil servants in your own department and in others, with press officers, special advisers, writing submissions for your Ministers, and so on, it is very easy to forget the world outside government. But, in statistics, there is a very important world out there – lots of different communities of users of statistics – academics, the media, Parliament, and of course the general public.

They watch very closely what the Statistical Service produces, and it is vitally important not to forget them. Ensuring the Statistical Service operates in the public good – in the widest of senses – is what the legislation, and we in the Authority, are all about.

That is a big and daunting task. But we are making headway. The Code of Practice, which we published almost a year ago, puts user requirements centre-stage. Each of the statutory Assessment reports that we have so far published – there are now 27 of them – contains observations about how well producers of individual sets of statistics are doing in terms of identifying, documenting and meeting user needs. We will also very soon publish a wide-ranging report on what we think further needs to be done to strengthen the voice of users across what we call the “statistical value chain” – from planning what statistics need to collected, through to how they should best be produced and disseminated, and how they should be communicated – and the underlying messages from them – to the outside world.

The Statistical Service must keep uppermost in its mind that many readers of statistical releases are not expert users – they quite often dip-in and dip-out of them trying to find what they hope to find. I think it is important to keep a constant eye on the language being used in statistical products, and to make sure that you communicate what the statistics show, and what they don’t, in as clear a way as you can so that it is accessible to as wide an audience as possible. We know that statistical communication often involves words and tables, but as we have seen from some of Jil’s examples earlier, it is also possible to think innovatively and creatively, and take advantage of developments in technology.

By retaining a user-focus in all of your work, thinking about what users need and want, thinking yourself into their shoes, speaking to them and asking them, building relationships with them, and trying to innovate on their behalf, the statistical products on which they rely will continue to grow and develop, and remain of lasting and real value.

So being more user-focused is one challenge. But in our short life so far the Authority has faced, and continues to face, another large challenge. Under the terms of the Statistics Act the Authority is, at the same time, in a leadership role in respect of the 7,000 members of the Government Statistical Service, and also part of the opposition, a critic and a regulator of the GSS. The National Statistician is, of course, the Head of the GSS. She is also the Authority’s Chief Executive, and all Authority and ONS employees are civil servants like you. So while part of the Authority is there to lead the GSS professionally, another part of us – a separate and distinct part – is also an independent regulator of official statistics – a “watchdog” if you like – reporting not to Ministers but directly to Parliament. To combine these two roles is difficult, but never more difficult than when we are regulating part of ourselves.

I venture to claim that we have so far performed this Indian rope trick with some success. The Authority has had to innovate and work it out as we go along, using the legislation as our guide. The most difficult moment came in the Spring, when Karen Dunnell, Jil’s predecessor as National Statistician, together with the ONS, were the objects of a blistering media attack about a release on migration and the migrant workforce. This attack was part political and part statistical or professional. We responded with an immediate public expression of support, repelling the political attack. Then we followed up with some considered and constructive criticisms of the Statistical Release itself. Of course we didn’t please everybody, but I am glad to record that the ONS, and the then National Statistician, publicly accepted our criticisms and, I believe, won admiration for the openness of their approach.

So while the Authority has a leadership role, and at times we are required to comment and criticise when things don’t go quite right, we are also here to support you and the National Statistician in ensuring that the Statistical Service remains as one of the very best in the world. In fact, that is what statutory Assessment is all about. Of course, one of the key roles of Assessment is to take a decision on whether a statistical product should carry – or continue to carry – the National Statistics badge. But Assessment is a lot more besides. In each Assessment report, we take a view on how well the statistics being assessed are meeting the principles and practices in the Code of Practice, and offer some suggestions for further enhancement, as well as requirements on the department to do certain things for National Statistics status to be retained.

However, that is not where the story ends. Our role through Assessment is not just to lay down requirements or set out suggestions from ‘on high’ – it is to help ensure that official statistics are produced and disseminated for the public good. We want to support statisticians to help you to meet the exacting standards in the Code of Practice, and we are ready to offer advice or to lend a supporting hand if you call upon us to do so.

By the time that I retired from the Civil Service in 2001, there had been a squeeze on the analytical professions for several decades or more, to preserve, as it was argued, Departments’ front-line capability. Nowhere had this squeeze been felt more acutely than in the Government Statistical Service.

Since I have been Chair of the Statistics Authority I have seen that this decline has been reversed, and that many Departments have taken significant action to rebuild their analytical capability. I believe that the Statistics Act, although it nowhere mentions the GSS explicitly, provides the opportunity to build further on this change. Statisticians need, in my view, to come out more into the daylight, to be more fully involved with the other professions in policy-making and in providing the analytical horse-power which Departments so much need; and statisticians also need to get themselves ready, through improved training and a changed view of their own role and capability, to explain and defend in public their numbers and their publications. I know that one of Jil’s priorities is to continue to provide opportunities for you to enhance your skills and professional development, and influencing and communication skills play a very important part in that.

It has been good to see some Departments working with the Authority and the National Statistician supporting our initiative of holding statistical press briefing events to coincide with the publication of major statistical releases, separate from Ministers and departmental press offices. I believe this is a genuine example of innovation in the spirit of the legislation. But we need more Departments to come on board – so please do take that message back. Journalists greatly value these briefing events. More importantly, they need them in order to understand the statistics properly, and benefit from the explanations given by you – by independent professionals.

Second, data-sharing. This, too, is a long journey, from the days, not long ago, when Departments were often obliged by law to keep their data entirely to themselves, to the innovative possibilities and new opportunities created by the Statistics Act. Bringing together the huge volumes of data held by key Departments, so there is read-across, so that new connections and new inferences may be made, will allow us either to learn more from existing data about our society and economy, or to reduce the demands we make on respondents, and on our own expenditure on the processes behind the production of statistics; or even both at the same time. I believe that this is the way forward for improving, for example, migration statistics, and also for future development of the Census.

So far, we have achieved data-sharing from the Schools Census, and also from the Migrant Worker Scan. Very recently, the process for bringing about data-sharing of higher education data got underway. So here, too, the GSS are playing its part in innovating and making progress, and I would like to pay tribute to the officials involved in those Departments concerned who have worked hard to bring these early successes about. You will not need me to tell you of the political difficulties ahead amidst the concerns about data loss and privacy. Therefore, embedded within this great opportunity, is also a challenge and an unknown.

Finally, the integrity of official statistics and public confidence in them. This, as you know, was the mainspring of the political motivation to have a Statistics Bill, and this is, in my view, the biggest prize offered by the Act. Our Code of Practice is very clear about, and very tough on, any attempt at political manipulation of official statistics. As such, it gives great responsibilities to the statistical Heads of Profession in Departments, and no doubt has given rise, and perhaps is still giving rise, to occasional tensions in some quarters within departments. But the Act and the Code have undoubtedly strengthened the position of statisticians in their departments, and I hope that in time the public – and the media – will come to see that is the case.

The Authority would, of course, like to see the position of statisticians further improved. I would, for example, like to see the pre-release regime further tightened, so that the public could be assured that politicians and their advisers have no opportunity to interfere with statistical publications in advance of their release, or otherwise seek to gain political advantage from early sight of statistical releases. This, too, will be the subject of one of our forthcoming Reports. So, while we look to see the professional standing of statisticians in their departments continue to improve, we also want to create as much of an independent professional space for statisticians as possible so that these reassurances for the public can be given.

In so many different ways, therefore, the new landscape created by the legislation gives the Statistical Service lots of opportunities to do things differently, to innovate and to build lasting relationships with all sorts of people, inside government and outside it. I have set out some of the opportunities as I see them today, but there will be many others. Like Jil, I encourage you to seize them with both hands.

Thank you very much indeed again for inviting me to speak to you today and I wish you well for the rest of your conference.

Speech by Sir Michael Scholar to the Annual Conference of the Statistics User Forum at the Royal Society, London

Role of statistics in a democratic society Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you this morning. I am delighted that you have extended this invitation to me to speak on today’s important topic.

I would like to set out my thoughts about the relationship between statistics and the mechanisms and processes of a modern democratic society. The processes of democracy do not run on political rhetoric; punditry and anecdote. Or at least they do not run very well on those fuels, no matter that they are in seemingly unlimited supply. What, in fact, democratic processes need is information on which the public can rely in deciding who to vote for, information on which elected representatives can rely in holding public institutions to account, and information on which public institutions can rely in devising and carrying out public policies. That is the democratic model – an informed public driving the machinery of public administration through elections, through accountability to the legislature and through direct feedback to public institutions.

Official statistics are a prime source of public information of this kind. General elections can and do turn on, for example, unemployment figures, balance of payments numbers, retail price indices, and GDP growth or contraction. Local elections can turn on the performance of schools, on immigration, and on local jobs. Social services and police forces should be judged by their overall performance not by scandal and witch-hunt. And all that, or most of it, means statistics. There is no other way. Statistics are not the only driving force but they are a specially important one.

When I addressed this gathering two years ago I remember acknowledging that the safeguarding of democracy required an improvement in public confidence in official statistics ; and acknowledging that that was a huge challenge. I would like to make two points about that today. The first is that an action aimed at improving public trust in the longer term may well in the short term diminish it. Each time the Statistics Authority criticises a statistical series, or the use a Minister or a Government Department makes of an official statistic, we are told that we are damaging trust in that Department’s statistics. I do not accept that. It may be necessary to make the criticism to try to change the Department’s behaviour, in order to make its statistics more trustworthy; and to show the public that the Statistics Authority is there to be a guarantor of quality and trustworthiness. To achieve greater trust in the long run we may need to damage trust today or next week.

My second point is more familiar, and more depressing. Public trust is a fragile commodity and no respecter of boundaries and categories. Recent events on the political level in terms of public confidence in Parliament and its Members will certainly provide a challenging backcloth to the Statistics Authority’s efforts to improve trust in official statistics. There is nothing we can do about this contextual difficulty.

Naturally, over the past year or so a very great deal of attention has been given to the economic indicators. The scale of the financial crisis, and of the recession, has been such as to create anxiety and fear about how rapidly, and how deeply, British and world GDP was contracting, how long the contraction lasted, whether it has ended, and if so how clearly and definitely. This situation lends urgency to a set of further questions: – what is the effect on individuals and on households, on inequality, between rich and poor, between different regions, and different social groups, and so on.

The Report of the Sarkozy Commission deals eloquently with these issues, and with much more besides – notably on sustainability, on the need to improve our ability to measure the state of our environment; and also on the gap between our ability to measure economic outputs, and our ability to measure individual and society’s well-being. You have today many speakers who are better qualified than I to discuss the recommendations in the Commission’s report. But I would like to add a personal angle to the debate.

I have a PhD in philosophy, and one philosopher I wrote about – many years ago – was Aristotle, who was well aware that well-being, or happiness, was wholly distinct from wealth, income and other measures of material well-being. The conceptual work which underpins a notion of measurable well-being is important, and difficult. It should be possible to devise agreed and internationally accepted measures of individuals’ health and education, their personal activities, including work, their political voice and governance, their social connections and relationships, security and environment; but it is more difficult to assign weightings to these characteristics and even more difficult to arrive at agreed measurements of such things as self-respect, self-esteem, and other components of what we ordinarily regard as happiness.

What I think would be wrong, however, is at this point to give up, on the basis that these latter characteristics are subjective matters, and not measurable or comparable. The task for statisticians, as I see it, is to discover what in this area can be measured, to chart the relationships between such characteristics, than to seek agreement within nations, and internationally, so that comparisons can be made, across time and across nations.

As I see it, the concept of well-being which this process will carve out is unlikely to be identical with the concepts of happiness of philosophers, poets and novelists, because what we will discover is a statistical concept, measurable and comparable by numbers. But that non-identity should not deter us from trying to establish – as the Commission recommends that we should – better measures of well-being, both objective and subjective.

Now I return more strictly to the subject of my contribution this morning. I have said many times before that an over-riding goal for the Statistics Authority is to improve UK official statistics to ensure they meet the needs of the user community in our democracy, of which citizen-users are a vitally important part, and to ensure we have as accurate a picture of our society and our economy as it is possible to paint. However improving statistics means more than ensuring that they are as reliable as they reasonably can be. It means also that the user can readily find the statistics in which he or she is interested; and having found the figures, is told all they need to know about the strengths and weaknesses of the statistics, so that the ‘end-use’ of the statistics is as well-informed and beneficial as possible. This is a big agenda. It embraces finding ways dramatically to improve online access as well as developing explanatory text that is itself easy to find and easy to understand. I understand that there will be a presentation later today about developments in this area in the United States. I can assure you that the Statistics Authority is paying close attention to these and is keen to work with Andrew Dilnot and the whole user community to explore the best way forward in this country.

I, Jil Matheson, the National Statistician and all our colleagues on the Statistics Authority Board are very much aware that the statistical service does not produce official statistics for their own sake. They are not trying to archive the 21st century in figures – as interesting as that might be. The value of their work, of all official statistics, is in the policy discussions they facilitate or contribute to, in the empirical evidence they provide to guide action, and in the intrinsic value they are to those who use them and rely on them. If official statistics are genuinely to be used to drive democratic debate, then the user must not be seen merely as a passive participant – the user community must represent more than just a final resting place at the end of the production process. It is not just statisticians who must show how statistics can add value to the processes of democracy; there is a vital role for users, academics, the media and other commentators to demonstrate that their use of official statistics supports the public good. By demonstrating the value of their use of statistics, users will be a much stronger influence over the shape and form of the statistical product; and thus help us to ensure it continues to benefit society and democracy.

The powerful role of official statistics mean that there need to be effective governance structures in place to oversee it all, and this is very much at the heart of what the Statistics Authority is all about. But, while governance is important, there also needs to be more emphasis on identifying, documenting and meeting the current and future statistical needs of all sectors of society. The Authority will be publishing a report about that in the New Year. A well-informed society pushes and encourages, and sometimes constrains, the institutions of the state to take the right decisions, for the right reasons, and on the back of the right evidence. Our role in the Statistics Authority is to support users, academics and commentators to engage with, and have influence over, the statistical product and how it is used for the public good and the wider public interest.

Before I close and hand over to Enrico and Paul, I just wanted to pause and say how pleased I am that the Statistics Authority has been able to assist again this year with the funding for this Conference. We see the work of the Users Forum and, indeed, this conference, to be well worth supporting in whatever way we can. I am also pleased that the Authority has seconded one of our staff – Liam Murray – to work with Andrew Dilnot in providing administrative support to the Forum. Please keep the Statistics Authority informed of your views and thoughts, either through Liam or with us directly.

Thank you very much indeed again for inviting me to speak to you this morning.

Speech by Sir Michael Scholar at the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency conference, Limavaddy, 29 September 2008

Thank you, Norman. And thank you so much for inviting me to this year’s Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency conference. It is clear to me from what I have seen and been told already that you have a very strong team and are rightly proud of your statistical output.

The title of this session, UK Statistics: Quality, Trust and Governance, goes very wide, but it neatly reflects the formal objectives placed on the UK Statistics Authority under last year’s legislation; and I am delighted to have this opportunity to tell you about our thinking at an early stage in the life of the Authority.

Statistical production in Northern Ireland has a substantial and respected history. I mention this as the same cannot, yet, be said about the Statistics Authority, which is a mere infant by comparison. We are 5 months old, to be precise. As befits a wellbehaved child, the Authority wants to listen, and learn, and to walk before it runs. So I, and colleagues, are here today to listen as well as to tell you about our plans.

One of the pleasures of my role as chair of the Authority is that it requires me to get out from behind my desk and meet a lot of people, hearing their views. This is an important part of my job. It keeps me realistic and focused on what people think are the priorities for the Authority and for the statistical service as a whole, of which NISRA is an important part.

As some of you will know one of my first visits after my appointment as shadow Chair a year ago was to Belfast, and I had a series of very useful and interesting meetings with NISRA people then.

I am currently visiting government departments and other bodies throughout the UK, hearing the views of Ministers, of Permanent Secretaries, and of statisticians in their own working environment. This month I have been to the Royal Statistical Society’s annual conference in Nottingham, I have been to meet statisticians at HMRC in London, and I have been to the Information Centre for Health & Social Care in Leeds. Today’s conference, in this very striking and beautiful setting, is another very welcome new experience.

We need to look further at how we will establish the dialogue between Northern Ireland’s statisticians and the Authority for the future. The Authority is looking forward to holding one of its Board meetings in Belfast next year, and I am grateful to Norman in helping us to make arrangements for us to do that. We will want to take that opportunity to look jointly with you at whether the dialogue is working as you and we would wish.

Throughout my career, I have worked closely with colleagues in Northern Ireland, whether that was in Downing Street or the Treasury in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, or at the Welsh Office and then at the Department of Trade & Industry in the 1990s. I used to go regularly to Belfast and Edinburgh in the 1990s when I was Permanent Secretary of the Welsh Office: we used to say that we were going to “pick up some ideas from our Celtic cousins”.

While all of us involved in the development of official statistics will work in our distinct areas of specialism, in different parts of the United Kingdom, reporting to different administrations, and bringing our unique perspectives to bear on the issues of the day, I do hope that the creation of the Statistics Authority will reinforce our sense of shared purpose.

With that in mind, I would like to say a few words about the role of the Authority. The Statistics and Registration Service Act gives us a clear statutory objective – to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. There are a lot of important ideas tied up in those last few words.

Let me have a go at fleshing out our thinking on this.

  • The Authority must make sure that the right statistics are produced – that is those statistics that help users of our statistics understand our society and our economy; and also help informed decision-making across society.
  • We must also make sure that the highest professional standards are maintained in the statistical work we undertake.
  • And, we must make sure that the statistics we produce are communicated intelligibly, clearly and as attractively as possible to users and the wider public who need them.

If we do these things, then we are serving the public good and we will build trust in ourselves and our statistics over time. Of course, doing all of this is a huge challenge but we are already strong in some respects and we mustn’t lose sight of that. I think Jil Matheson is going to expand on themes of quality, relevance and communication later on today.

The Northern Ireland statistical service has a very good track record in delivering objective and impartial statistics in a – sometimes – highly charged political environment. I think we will need to think hard whether there are lessons we can draw from this experience that might be relevant in Whitehall or the other devolved administrations.

Talking of independence and impartiality, I wanted to mention the Authority’s new Publication Hub, with which some of you may already be familiar.

The Publication Hub is a “one-stop-shop” for users of statistics, helping them to find the statistics they need from one central place on the Web.

Our Publication Hub ensures that National Statistics are released separately from ministerial or policy comment and it is, therefore, a vital – and very visible – tool in establishing a genuinely independent statistical service.

The Publication Hub is a genuine example of cross-country co-ordination and cooperation, and I am very pleased that out of my conversations with Norman and colleagues last evening has come a joint determination to include Northern Ireland statistics on our Publication Hub. I am keen to work with you to progress this as quickly as we can.

I want to turn now to the Authority’s two distinct roles as set out in the legislation.

Our first role is a scrutiny role – scrutiny over the UK statistical system. Or perhaps I should say ‘systems’ in the plural.

The UK statistical system is not really a single, unified entity and is not likely to become one – although we should, I believe, strive to protect and build-up those parts of it where a unified system is justified, and in fact necessary. Of course, the system is highly decentralised and the Northern Ireland system is one of several important pieces in this jigsaw.

I have heard from NISRA colleagues about the extent to which the Northern Ireland statistical service is, itself, also decentralised. While a lot of statistical work is carried out within the Department of Finance and Personnel, many of Northern Ireland’s vital social and economic statistics are produced in other bodies – for example, statistics on agriculture; culture, leisure and tourism; education and learning; enterprise, trade and investment; health and social services; policing; and urban regeneration and social development.

It is a similar picture in some of the other big producer bodies, and central to the Authority’s scrutiny role will be the monitoring of statistical work in all of the relevant organisations. By doing so, we will both help to improve the coherence and quality of the service, and build the confidence of users in that coherence and quality.

Scrutiny also involves the formal assessment of statistics against a Code of Practice that the Authority itself determines. Richard Alldritt, the Authority’s Head of Assessment, will be speaking about that in more detail in a moment.

The Authority’s second main role – which may have less day-to-day relevance to you but is nevertheless important to the management of the system as a whole – is our direct responsibility for the Office for National Statistics as the UK’s national statistical institute and producer of many important statistics.

These two roles give us a measure of practical authority in the eyes of the public, which is why my Board decided to adopt the name ‘UK Statistics Authority’. We are not seeking to usurp the formal authority of Ministers for the work of their civil servants but we do want to be seen as acting authoritatively across the entire statistical system.

Central to this practical authority is our formal accountability to the Westminster Parliament and, of course, to the Devolved Legislatures in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

We greatly value parliamentary oversight of the Authority’s work, monitoring what we do against the statutory objectives given to us.

And it is right that the Parliaments take a close interest in our work, to ensure that the statistical system delivers statistics that are trusted and that serve the “public good”.

I would now like to say something about the way that user needs seem to straddle administrative boundaries. With that thought in mind, I might first say how important it is that Northern Ireland agreed to be part of the UK-wide arrangements under the Statistics and Registration Service Act.

Thinking back to that, I wanted to put on record my thanks to Norman and his colleagues for such crucial support at such an early stage in the passage of that legislation. Such an early commitment to the spirit of what we are now trying to achieve was enormously valuable.

In a sense, by signing up to the legislation you have shared a little bit of your independence in the public interest, and for the support that the rest of the system may be able to offer in terms of co-ordination and public reassurance. I am very conscious that there are obligations on both sides, and the Authority will do its best to meet your expectations of it.

The “four-country” environment is certainly a complex one in which to operate, if only because responsibility for many official statistics is treated as a devolved matter while other statistics covering the devolved administrations are the responsibility of one or more Whitehall department.

But even when we negotiate that issue of ownership, there are the complexities of user need. It is simply not the case that Northern Ireland’s statistical user just wants Northern Ireland statistics, or that there is no responsibility to users in other parts of the UK or internationally. We must look to the public good, and serve the users where it is going to help them do some good – wherever that may be geographically.

What users of statistics want – wherever they live – is a well-organised and co-ordinated statistical service that operates in the public interest across administrative boundaries.

It is our responsibility to have oversight of that service to ensure the needs of users are met to the greatest extent possible.

To help us deliver that, the Authority requires producers of statistics to work effectively together to ensure statistics meet the needs of users, to support decision-making on the ground, or individual choice.

I firmly believe – and I said the same at the Authority’s launch in Scotland a few months ago – there are no self-contained geographical or administrative boundaries in the world of official statistics.

While each administration must produce and publish the statistics it needs, the case for harmonisation, common standards, and cross-country co-operation must be examined with an open mind. The same applies at the European and wider international level.

But, while some users of statistics quite rightly argue for greater harmonisation, others continue to put a persuasive case for figures and statistical analysis that focus on local issues that are important to them. They want figures that are attuned to local circumstances.

The Authority needs to balance both cases to ensure that

  • the decisions about what statistics are produced, take account of all user needs;
  • that these statistics are produced to the highest professional standards; and,
  • that statisticians communicate important statistical messages effectively in a way that supports the use of those statistics to deliver public benefit.

I look forward to continuing to work with you in helping the Authority deliver these important objectives.

Thank you once again for inviting me to speak to you today, and for giving me such a welcome opportunity to come back to Northern Ireland.

Speech by Sir Michael Scholar to the Annual Conference of the Royal Statistical Society, University of Nottingham, 4 September 2008

Introduction

I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to speak to you today at this most important conference in the statistical calendar. I am not, as you know, myself a statistician, but I have used statistics all of my working life and I have worked closely with producers of statistics in three government Departments. I am very proud to have been recently elected as an RSS Fellow.

I see the relationship between the Royal Statistical Society and the UK Statistics Authority as having the potential to develop into an alliance of real substance and purpose. While our perspectives will sometimes be different, our goals in relation to official statistics are, I believe, very close.

At heart, we want to see the statistical service, provided to society as a whole, steadily developed in the public interest. That is my statutory duty as well as being, I believe, our shared aspiration.

Of course, the RSS is the ‘senior’ family member at the table. It has been going strong for the best part of two centuries while the Government Statistical Service has just celebrated its 40th birthday. The UK Statistics Authority is an infant of only five months.

Now, I wouldn’t want to take this analogy too far but we could say that the Authority needs to learn to walk before it can run – and it is experiencing a few teething problems. Bear with us and watch us grow.

This is not, in fact, the first time I have spoken at the RSS. In April, I was invited to speak to the Society’s Official Statistics Section, just a few days after the Authority assumed its statutory role.

There were some very acute questions posed from the floor at that meeting – perhaps rather more fully developed than my answers could be at such an early point in our existence?

Today, we have another opportunity to exchange views, and I would encourage you both to raise questions directly with me and to participate in the separate panel discussion which will follow this plenary session.

David Lipsey, John Pullinger, and Ian Maclean are among the very best informed commentators on the world of official statistics and I am sure this will be a most stimulating debate.

I understand that the focus in that session will consider what the measures of success for the Authority should be. Statistics Authority staff will be taking careful notes of points made and the full Authority Board will discuss the messages arising from it at its meeting later this month.

Of course, the RSS is not just a world-leading professional statistical association, but it also brings together an immense fund of expertise in the field of UK official statistics including the crucially important user perspective in the form of the Statistics Users Forum.

The merger of the Statistics Users Forum into the RSS structure offers a ready-made platform for dialogue about the needs and views of the user community, and we are keen to find the best way to build on that in the months to come.

The UK’s statistical system lives, as we all do, in a fast-changing world.

Developments in information technology bring new opportunities and expectations to the table, but they also raise the expectations of the user.

Increasing population mobility makes counting people accurately much more of a challenge for our statisticians and interviewers.

Declining trust in authority and an increasing perception of a surveillance society makes statistical work much more difficult, in particular securing high response rates to surveys and form-based data collection.

The statistical system has to react to the changing public expectations of public services. New ways of working, for example those brought about by devolution and the added emphasis on target-based delivery in the public sector, means that the framework in which official statistics are produced and used, and indeed interpreted by the wider public, has changed dramatically in just a few years.

Since we live in such a fast-changing world, I feel it is vital that we have a coherent planning system for UK official statistics. Instead of a “scatter-gun” approach, composed of numerous individual departmental plans, we need a more structured and informed method of planning across the statistical system.

It is the Authority’s role, I believe, to sponsor and encourage statistical planning with user engagement at its core. In particular, the user community can help us identify issues currently in the statistical system that present real-life challenges which are not already taken account of, as well as providing expert input into gathering an evidence-base of user requirements.

I would like to say a little about what we have been doing during our formative months. We have begun in earnest, turning into action the formal remit given to us in the Statistics and Registration Service Act – “to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good”.

In particular, I would like to touch on four things: ƒ

  • How we have set the Authority up in order properly to discharge the responsibilities given to us. ƒ
  • How our work is overseen by Parliament and how such scrutiny arrangements secure our own independence from the government of the day. ƒ
  • How we are developing our own scrutiny mechanisms for official statistics through the Authority’s assessment and monitoring process. ƒ
  • And, how users and experts will play a vital role in ensuring the work of the Authority is “grounded”, focused on priorities, and targeted in the areas that matter.

Setting up the Authority

The Authority has two distinct roles set out in the legislation.

First is what we might call ‘scrutiny’ of the entire UK statistical system. We have a formal role to raise any concerns we have with statistical work in any of the dozens of organisations responsible for official statistics – I am being careful here not to put a figure on the number of these organisations as we might then have to announce large revisions.

Also, under the “scrutiny” heading, we have the formal assessment of areas of statistical work against a Code of Practice which the Authority itself will determine.

The broader scrutiny role will lead to a series of reports we are calling “Monitoring Reports” and the assessment work will lead to reports we are calling “Assessment Reports”.

The consultation document on the Code of Practice, which closes at the end of this month, is the first of the Monitoring Reports and I will return to our plans for further reports in a moment. Do let us know what you think of our draft Code. The consultation closes on 30th September.

The second main role is our direct responsibility for the Office for National Statistics as the UK’s national statistical institute and the producer of many important statistics.

These two roles for the Authority need to be kept largely separate – not least to ensure confidence in the assessment and monitoring of the work of the ONS itself, and this means that there are a number of important actors with distinct, and distinctly important, parts to play.

On my appointment, I took the decision that two of the Authority’s non-executive members should serve as Deputy Chairs, one as Deputy Chair with responsibility for oversight of the UK statistical system, and the second with responsibility for “all-things ONS”.

Lord Rowe-Beddoe – David Rowe-Beddoe – is our Deputy Chair with responsibility for oversight of the Office for National Statistics. His background is a distinguished career in business, in the UK and internationally, and also in heading public sector organisations. David chairs the ONS Board which now meets regularly to monitor and scrutinise the work of the ONS. The ONS Board is, in effect, a sub-committee of the Authority and raises ONS issues at Authority meetings where this is required.

Adrian Smith – familiar to many of you as a distinguished former President of the RSS – was appointed as the Authority’s other Deputy Chair with responsibility for oversight of the UK official statistics system.

Adrian has chaired the second of the top-level Authority committees, the Committee on Official Statistics, which is responsible for oversight of the statistical system.

However, as sometimes happens with the best-laid plans, the unforeseen has happened: Adrian has had to step down from the Authority following his appointment to a senior post in the Civil Service. That is our loss but we are actively recruiting for his successor.

I can think of no better a forum than this RSS conference to pay a personal and sincere tribute to Adrian for his hard work and advice in the formative months of the Authority’s life, for the support he has given to me, and to wish him, on behalf of all the Authority members, every success in his new appointment.

The Committee on Official Statistics will be the main arena in which the Authority engages with users and other important external voices including the RSS and user groups, helping the Authority take a view on the shape and state of the UK statistical system and identifying things that need a closer look in our Monitoring Reports.

It is still early days; the Committee has met only once and is currently without a chair – an example of one of those teething problems I mentioned just a little while earlier. Please bear with us and the Committee will soon get the wind in its sails and will be coming to you for your views, if you are not already making those known.

Let me also mention two other important actors – both well known to you – who are central to the Authority’s work, Karen Dunnell and Richard Alldritt.

Karen, as National Statistician and head of the Government Statistical Service has professional oversight of statistical matters across Government and, while also being chief executive of ONS, Karen is our most senior adviser on the activities of the wider GSS.

Karen’s standing as the professional adviser to the Authority, of which she is also a full member, is recognised formally in the legislation.

Richard Alldritt, the Authority’s Head of Assessment, is another central player in the team. His role is, again, formally recognised in the legislation. In particular, we look to him and his new team to assess compliance with the Code of Practice and lead all our monitoring work.

At the moment Richard is leading the consultation on the Code of Practice, building up a team in London, Newport and Edinburgh, and developing our plans for the first series of reports.

Richard will also be responsible for providing responsive advice to the press and others who raise matters of immediate concern with the Authority.

As this scrutiny role develops, an increasing amount of the Authority’s time is likely to be devoted to pursuing the recommendations from the various Assessment and Monitoring Reports. So we can expect to see something of an evolution in the balance of the Authority’s priorities as we mature into an established part of the statistical system.

I’d also like to remind you about the development that we call “the Publication Hub”. The Hub is a vital tool in demonstrating a professionally independent statistical service, as well as providing a “one-stop-shop” for statistical releases which can only be to the benefit of all users.

From April this year, all National Statistics have been released online on the Publication Hub, in one central place, from where users are taken straight to the statistics without any ministerial or policy commentary alongside them.

The Authority has also hosted two National Statistics press conference events in recent months, the first of their kind. The intention is that these events will provide a forum for professional statisticians to publish and introduce their statistics, make presentations to journalists, and take questions on the statistics.

No ministers are sitting alongside them, and journalists are directed back to departmental press offices for any policy or ministerial comment on the implications of the statistics. As some of you will know, we had a teething problem here recently about which your President has written to me. Suffice it to say that I am fully in agreement with David Hand, and am pursuing the matter he raised with me.

What these innovations show is the extent to which the Authority is now able to reinforce the professional independence of statisticians in government, and the independence of the statistics they produce.

The online Publication Hub is being improved all the time. The next phase of developments is due to be launched towards the end of this year. Do let us know what you think it.

Scrutiny: Assessment, Designation & Monitoring reports, and Parliament

I have said a few things about the scrutiny role already. It straddles all the component parts of the statistical value chain – from the planning and funding of statistics, through to the collection of statistics, the delivery of statistical products, and the communication and dissemination of statistical messages.

The legislation gives us “teeth” and we will, I am sure, be able to have some “bite” in terms of scrutiny of the UK statistical system.

But we will not bite without careful process, taking full account of the need to retain the confidence of those who produce the statistics. We must be deliberate, considered and consistent in our actions and in our comments.

We should use the statutory responsibilities given to us to encourage and facilitate progress, pointing to the scope for improvement rather than criticising past practice. The visible deployment of our teeth will be reserved for the more – how should I put it – recalcitrant cases.

Central to our practical authority – the teeth if you like – is our formal accountability to Parliament, and the reports we make to them.

We value deeply Parliament’s own scrutiny of us in monitoring progress against our statutory objectives, and it is right that Parliament takes a keen interest in what we do, ensuring the statistical system delivers trusted statistics that serve the “public good”.

The Authority is required under the legislation to lay its reports before Parliament and the devolved Parliaments. That, in itself, demonstrates how we are accountable to the public, and how the Authority is different to the previous arrangements.

The UK parliamentary committee that will take the most direct interest in us is the House of Commons Public Administration Committee, chaired by Tony Wright MP. Our relationship with the Committee is still at a very early stage, but I have met Tony Wright on several occasions, and I am looking forward to working with the Committee.

Before the summer recess, the Committee took evidence from representatives of the statistical user community, including senior RSS figures, to start to identify the important messages coming from users about what the priorities are for the Authority.

I hope and expect to have an opportunity at some point in the next few months to tell the Committee what the Authority has been doing and to hear the views of the parliamentary community. The Authority will also be meeting parliamentarians more informally at an event we are organising in November.

I expect we will also be called before other parliamentary committees, in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast when these committees need to hear from us about our views on particular statistical matters.

I welcome these opportunities to report to the Parliaments, and I look forward to them. It is a key part of how the new statutory system will work.

I would like to speak a little about the how the Authority sees its own scrutiny function, rather than how its work is scrutinised from above.

As many commentators have already noted, the legislation contains something of a tension between, on the one hand, executive scrutiny over the ONS, and on the other a much broader scrutiny role over the whole statistical system.

While we have to spend, quite rightly, some of our time closely involved in ONS business, we want to spend at least as much time in ensuring our independent voice is heard on matters of public concern.

We will keep our collective eye focused on the big picture, to deliver system-wide benefits and build long-term public trust in the products and outputs that make up the statistical service.

We announced our plans for the first set of Monitoring Reports in July because we want to make rapid progress in reviewing those areas that have a particular relevance or importance to the statistical user community and wider society.

In this context, I am most grateful to the RSS, especially the National Statistics Working Party chaired by Jill Leyland, for keeping us informed of what they think are the most important issues for us to consider. If our initial plans have not done full justice to the RSS views, then of course we will be glad to discuss them further.

I have already mentioned that the first Authority Monitoring Report is the consultation document on the Code of Practice. And the second, in early January I hope, will be our final report on the Code.

But we are also preparing a report on progress in improving migration statistics. While there is a lot of work currently being done within Government to improve measures of migration – and Karen Dunnell is working closely with an inter-departmental group of Ministers to deliver this – it is important that the Authority comes to a view on whether everything that can be done is being done.

Possibly before that is published, we will issue a root-and-branch review of all those official statistics that are not currently designated as National Statistics with a view to making recommendations for the extension of the set identified as National Statistics – again there are specific legal powers for us to do this.

The Authority has this power to issue notifications that statistics should be brought within the ambit of the Code and the Authority fully intends to use it. We want to make sure that the Code of Practice applies to all those statistics that professional experts think should be covered.

In the next twelve months we also plan to publish other Monitoring Reports on:

  • the communication of measurements of inflation (and consumer prices);
  • barriers to trust in relation to crime statistics; • the adequacy of environmental statistics to inform public debate and government policy;
  • And finally, and I spoke about this a little earlier, arrangements for longer term planning for statistics to meet society’s needs.

As soon as we are little closer to finalising the Code of Practice, the Assessment team will begin the task of assessing against the Code the current set of 1,300 National Statistics products, as well as the significant number of statistics that are currently in the “waiting room” for designation as National Statistics.

1,300 may not sound all that many, but it is worth remembering that the Census counts as just one of that 1,300. The complete assessment of National Statistics is a Herculean task.

Just as the Code covers all aspects of statistical planning, production and communication – ranging from the funding and planning of statistics through to the communication of statistical messages to those who need to use them – so too will Assessment look at the entire process.

In that sense it is not the statistics, as such, that are being assessed. It is the entire service being delivered to the user.

While some of our attention will focus inwards on the statistical products of government, we will also closely monitor the issues and concerns that people such as yourselves, journalists, and other interested parties, have raised with us.

We will be very open about the concerns that have been raised with us, whether we share those concerns or not.

If you look on our website this week, you will find what we call our ‘Issues Log’.

This has only just been started but it is intended to be a fully public record of concerns that have been raised with us. The log is maintained by our Secretariat and Assessment teams, who will also add issues that they have identified in the press and news media.

We will develop this in the light of reaction to it. The inclusion of an item on the Issues Log does not necessarily mean we are planning to devote resources to investigating it, but it does mean we are publicly acknowledging that we are aware of concerns.

Involving users and experts in the work of the Authority

I have said that we want to involve users and experts in our work but, so far, I have not said much about how we will do this.

As we set out in our consultation document on the Code of Practice, which also covered the principles and procedures for assessment work, we will be actively engaging users and external experts in planning and guiding our reports. We will also invite appropriate experts to sit on project boards, to tender for research contracts or to offer advice on specific issues.

All of this is still to evolve but we will make sure that it does. To the greatest extent possible, we want our reports to reflect a consensus among the expert community. That is the way to bring maximum influence to bear in those cases where influence is needed.

And, of course, we also want these reports to be grounded in a good understanding of the user requirement, both today and in the future.

This is not an exact science. But we must do all we can to focus statistical production on real current and future requirements rather than simply what is easiest, or least controversial, to produce.

We must also avoid the temptation to produce reports that are too academic or rarefied in their arguments. Our main audience consists of those who use statistics, and those politicians, journalists and commentators who influence opinion about statistics.

These people must be engaged with what we are saying, understand our message, and support us in pushing for improvement.

That may mean producing reports that bear little resemblance to a PhD thesis and are relatively short and plain. But we must still aim for consistent high quality. That is a real challenge and one in which we will need your help.

As part of this we will be looking to establish a systematic dialogue with the many user communities, in particular the Statistics User Forum, central and local government, the National Health Service, the commercial and voluntary sectors, and of course the academic users who use statistics in so many fields of research.

The mission of the Authority

I would like to finish by returning to the central role of the Authority as laid down in legislation – “to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good”. What does this mean in practice? Let me have a go at unpacking the meaning in as simple plain English as I can manage:

  1. We must make sure that the right statistics are produced, i.e. those that help us all understand our society and our economy, and help policy-makers in their decisions.
  2. We must make sure that the highest professional standards are maintained, and;
  3. We must make sure that the statistics are communicated intelligibly, clearly and as attractively as possible to the public. In this way we will enhance trust in the statistical system, both in terms of its quality, and its political independence and impartiality.

The UK Statistics Authority is still in its infancy and we still have to acquire skills, competence and confidence. But we are making steady progress and we have, I believe, a clear idea about the direction in which we are heading.

I look forward to continuing the dialogue with you.

Thank you once again for inviting me this afternoon.

Talk by the Head of Assessment, Richard Alldritt, at the Royal Statistical Society Annual Conference, University of Nottingham, 3 September 2008

The UK Statistics Authority has issued for consultation a draft code of practice for official statistics. It is quite hard to get people to actually read it word by word. I think that when you do, you find there is a lot in it. It has 10 principles – covering everything from integrity, accessibility, methodology, resources, and value for money. These principles contain a total of 60+ practices and 3 further protocols on release practices, consultation and use of administrative data in producing official statistics. This 3rd protocol is completely new and may need some more work in light of responses to the consultation process. If you have views on the draft Code do let us have them by 30 September.

We didn’t pluck it out of air. The Code has a lot of history but it is based quite closely on the existing National Statistics Code, the European Code and the UN Fundamental Principles. It is shorter, simpler and more imperative in style than the current National Statistics code; it is closer to European Code; and, no longer seeks to set out exemptions and exceptions.

Crucially, the Code is a set of principles and rules for organisations that produce official statistics. It is not so much for individuals. So it says things like:

Principle 1.2 “Ensure that those producing such reports are protected from any political pressures that might influence the presentation of the statistics.”

Principle 10.1 “Ensure that statistical services have the staff, financial and computing resources to produce and disseminate statistics to the standards of this Code.”

While the Code covers a great deal it does not cover pre-release access arrangements because the Statistics and Registration Service Act says it cannot, but we are required to treat the new statutory rules (the pre-release access to statistics order) as if they were part of the Code. The problem here is that the new rules on pre-release access are loose and only apply to ‘statistics in final form’. So there is a further document being produced by the Cabinet Office which guides bodies on how the statutory rules should be interpreted. And Scotland has drafted a rather different set of statutory rules. So this area is very problematic. The Authority’s view is that what matters is how the various statutory orders are used in practice and that we will be looking to see a reduction in pre-release access. We have also rejected the argument that pre-release access is needed in order to be able to put out Ministerial statements at the same time as the statistics – why should we support the issue of political documents over the top of the statistical ones?

Meanwhile, the Code has to deal with pre-release access to statistics not in their final form which is not covered in the statutory orders.

Back to the Code proper. What is it for? What are we going to do with it? One thing it is not going to be is some sort of guarantee of the quality or reliability of the figures themselves. As long as the statistics are the best that can reasonably be produced, are useful to users, and are well explained when published, the Code does not require them to be any better than they currently are.

And just to deal with a point that causes some confusion; we see the Code as applying to all official statistics but only being used as a basis for formal assessment in relation to those defined as National Statistics. I have to say, I do not see great value in the National/Official distinction but it is written into the legislation and we have to live with it.

The Code must rather be seen as a tool which can be actively used, in conjunction with the Authority’s Assessment function, to achieve the goals of the Authority. If the Authority thought that the statistical service was fine as it is, then the Code could be used to keep it as it is. And if the Authority thought that the statistical service needed to be improved, then the interpretation of the Code can be ‘calibrated’ to put emphasis where it is needed.

This is an important point and is best illustrated with examples.

The Code says at Principle 2.3 “Investigate and document the needs of users of official statistics, the use made of existing statistics and the types of decisions they inform, and the key areas of emerging demand and unmet need. Take these into account in the planning process and report the results”.

Let me ask you. What is your advice to the Statistics Authority? How do you want us to use that requirement? To change current practice, or to keep them where they are now? That is a decision we must take. My point is that the Code per se does not include this calibration. This will come out of the Assessment process and the dialogue that supports that process. The Code tells us to look at the documentation of user needs – it does not tell us at what point to be happy with what we find.

Another potentially tricky example is in the preamble to the Code (at paragraph 11 of the Preamble) “It is implicit in the Code that, within those bodies that produce official statistics, there will be sufficient managerial separation between officials responsible for National Statistics and other staff of the organisation to ensure clear lines of accountability for observance of the Code”.

We could have added this to the Code as an imperative; and we may yet do so. Do you think there is sufficient managerial separation at the moment? Where would you set the bar in this area? Again, we can calibrate “sufficient managerial separation as we think right”.

One more example. At Principle 2.1 “…adopt systematic statistical planning arrangements, including transparent priority setting, that reflect the obligation to serve the public good”.

The phrase about the “public good” stems from the legislation. What it means is supporting decision-making where the decisions benefit the public. So all government use of statistics is deemed to be covered but so, too, is a lot else. How will we know if the public good is being served by the planning arrangements?

My answer to that is that we need to ask the users whether our statistical planning is meeting their needs – this ties-up with the requirement to investigate and document the needs of users, as I have already mentioned.

In practice, quite a lot of guidance on the interpretation of the Code is going to be needed and while the Assessment team will influence this, we see the main role as being for the National Statistician. There is an important point here. We are not setting out to over-ride the judgement of the National Statistician or the Government Statistical Service. We will challenge it and, of course, the Authority itself will have the last word, but day-to-day guidance will come from ONS.

I now want to touch on a few possibly controversial points. Firstly, the legislation does not restrict the Code to the production of statistics. Our consultation document raises the possibility of the Code covering Ministerial statements issued at the same time as statistical release. So it may be that we might require them to quote statistics accurately, including full references to the relevant statistics they are using. It could even go a bit further, perhaps saying explicitly not to issue Ministerial statements until after the statistics; or not to give the impression that the Ministerial statement is the main statistical statement. Or not to distract attention from the statistics by looking like a statistical release? I would be glad to hear what you think.

Principle 6.2 says that producers of statistics should “Provide full and helpful commentary on the relevance and reliability of statistics in relation to the range of potential uses”.

How do you rate the commentary you read now? Does it say much about relevance and reliability of statistics in relation to the uses? Does it say anything at all about the uses? For example, take crime statistics. How many uses can we realistically name for crime statistics?

Finally, I want to turn to the new Protocol 3 on the use of administrative sources. At this point, the Code introduces the idea of an Administrative Sources Statement which requires the body responsible for the production of the statistics to set out all the administrative sources it uses to produce those statistics, and to define procedures which will ensure that any change in the system takes account of the implications for statistics. The Statement will also contain arrangements for providing access for statistical purposes and ensuring security.

The key thing in all of this is that the National Statistician must be consulted. This is what our draft Code says about that:

Public bodies who produce official statistics should also:

“Consult the National Statistician before finalisation of the Administrative Sources Statement and address any points raised so that the UK Statistics Authority may be assured that statistical work based on administrative sources is being conducted in ways that serve the public good.” (Protocol 3, paragraph 7)

Do please let us have your views on our draft Code and the principles and procedures that will govern our Assessment work. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech by Richard Alldritt, Head of Assessment of the UK Statistics Authority to the 2008 GSS Methodology Conference

23 June 2008

Methodology, Assessment and Service Delivery

It is a great pleasure to have been invited to make my first public comments as Head of Assessment, at this year’s GSS Methodology conference.

And for reasons I shall come to I think it is appropriate that we should seek, at an early stage in the development of the new Assessment function, to open up a dialogue between the Statistics Authority and all of you who are interested in matters of methodology.

I have always regarded methodology as the hard stuff of statistics and best left to people who know a lot more about it than me.

Consequently I am not quite sure of the boundaries around the field that we call “methodology”.

I know some of the things on the “inside”, not least from studying the programme for today’s conference – including time-series analysis, projections, index number construction, survey methods, disclosure control, classifications, small area estimation, the measurement of output and productivity, and issues of statistical geography.

But, I wonder if – in the rapidly evolving world of official statistics – the boundaries now perhaps need to be wider still. And this is a theme I want to explore with you a little further in a minute and as part of that ongoing dialogue I mentioned a moment ago.

On that theme, I would like to pay tribute to superb and responsive advice that I received when I was chief executive of the Statistics Commission from methodology colleagues in ONS, and I’ll embarrass him by mentioning Peter Goldblatt in particular.

But at least I start in the new arena of Assessment with an acute sense of how important it will be to turn to methodologists for advice – on rather a lot of issues. Let me be absolutely clear on this point. The Authority’s Assessment function will not be setting up in competition with current centres of expertise. We will rather be your most enthusiastic customers.

I’d like to say a little more about what Assessment means and the link with methods and methodology.

The Statistics and Registration Service Act defines Assessment quite narrowly. In the terms of the Act, Assessment is essentially a matter of first examining chunks of statistical activity, to see if they are compliant with a revised Code of Practice – a code which the Authority will itself approve – and then producing reports: we are calling these “Designation Reports”.

On Friday of last week, the Authority agreed the text of a consultation document including our proposals on a revised Code of Practice and we will publish this soon. We really do want to know what you think of it, so please feed in your comments as part of the consultation process.

The Code serves, in effect, as a ‘contract’ between the Authority, on the one hand and organisations that produce official statistics on the other – setting out what is expected of them in broad terms.

And the Code also serves as a contract between the Authority and Parliament – setting out what Parliament can expect the Authority to pursue on its behalf. So the Code is a critical piece of the new statutory infrastructure.

Producers of National Statistics are under a statutory duty to comply with the Code. The Assessment process, therefore, is more than just a source of advice but I am determined that it will be constructive, helpful and forward looking. Some colleagues in the GSS seem concerned that it will be used to criticise them. I will take this and every opportunity to stress that that is not the aim. The aim is to help push forward improvement in the service in the public interest.

Principle 3 of the revised Code – which is much shorter than the current National Statistics Code of Practice – says that

“Methods for the production, management and dissemination of official statistics should accord with scientific principles and internationally recognised best practice” and

“quality should be monitored and assured taking account of internationally agreed concepts of statistical quality”.

As I’ve said the staff who will carry out the Assessment of chunks of statistical activity will not themselves be expert methodologists. Nor would I want them to be.

We will therefore, through some means yet to be fully worked out, need a formal mechanism for inviting appropriate experts to assist us in approving the methodological aspects of statistical work in all the bodies that produce National Statistics, throughout the UK. Again, this must be part of an ongoing dialogue.

You may be thinking that this means additional work for you, and I think it does too, but it also gives methodologists more practical authority across government than ever before. And that must be a good thing.

However, this regular Assessment work, leading to Designation Reports, is only half the story.

The Statistics Authority will also be producing a long term series of one-off reports on ‘issues’ in official statistics; and we have imaginatively labelled these as “Issue Reports”.

The consultation document on the Code of Practice will itself be the first of these issue reports. After that, the Authority’s issue reports will cover both major matters of public concern, and also more process or organisational questions.

I can tell you today that the Authority will this year be starting work on reports on 1) the communication of inflation and consumer prices, 2) on the progress being made to improve migration statistics and 3) on statistics not currently within National Statistics which should be and 4) barriers to trust in relation to crime statistics.

We have also decided on some of a second wave of reports to include 1) the arrangements needed for long term planning for the statistical service as a whole to meet the longer term needs of society, and 2) the adequacy of environmental statistics to inform public debate. We do, however, retain the option to juggle these and other reports to take account of our capacity and the views of various stakeholders.

I think however I have told you enough for you to see that we are setting our sights on the big issues…and will need all the help we can get.

So, what role for methodologists on these, high profile, one-off reports?

My guess is that the role will be substantial. Both in terms of advising the review work directly, helping to formulate conclusions and recommendations, but also helping with the actual implementation of the recommendations.

A report might for example recommend that methods be improved without being all that specific as to exactly what methods should be used. Implementation of the Authority reports is likely to become a significant area of work.

Now, just in case you are getting the impression that I may be pushing a lot of work your way, I want to add some more.

I want to return to the thought that the boundaries of what we call ‘methodology’ may not be drawn wide enough. I look to you for guidance on this.

In some sense, the existence of methodology is what defines statistical professionalism and distinguishes it from the efforts of non-professionals. Consequently, we all know we must follow best methodological practice when designing surveys and constructing indices, and so on.

But I wonder if the time has come to push the boundaries more and ask if we are following best methodological practice when, firstly, we consult users of statistics about their needs; secondly, when we extract the messages from the statistics in a consistent way; and thirdly when we communicate, via paper and the web, the finished product to users. I do recognise that both analysis and dissemination are on the agenda today but what I have in mind is not just the more technical aspects but rather the entire activity of extracting and communicating statistical messages.

In my view of the statistical system in the UK, viewed in the round, we are good at the core tasks of collecting and producing statistics but the areas I have just mentioned are our weaker one – the planning of what gets produced in the first place; the derivation of the statistical messages, and the communication of those messages to the user.

The new legislation gives the Authority the job of promoting the production and publication of statistics that “serve the public good”. In practice, that means statistics that serve the needs of people who need statistics to inform their work and actions.

So I will leave you with a question. Has the time now come where we should start to see the entire processes of planning, production and communication as professional matters to which professional methods should routinely apply?

I look forward to continuing discussion of these issues with you.

Speech for Sir Michael Scholar at Statistics Reform Launch Event – Scotland

Thank you, Minister, for that welcome and your remarks. On behalf of the UK Statistics Authority may I say how pleased we are to have been invited to this event which recognises, at this early stage in our existence, the role the Authority will want, and be expected, to play in the development of official statistics in Scotland.

As our name indicates, the Authority has a UK-wide remit – and it is to be warmly welcomed that the Scottish Parliament and Government decided last year that all the provisions of the Statistics and Registration Service Act – which established the Authority – should apply in Scotland. It is the use of statistics, not the collection of them, that delivers public value; and the user would not thank us if the various collectors of statistics were unwilling to work together.

The so-called ‘four-country’ environment in which the Authority will operate is quite complex – with responsibility for many official statistics devolved, whilst responsibility for others – such as benefit statistics and some labour market statistics – are still the responsibility of Whitehall departments.

I believe that Scottish users of statistics, be they in the Parliament, Government, public services or elsewhere, need a well organised and co-ordinated service which must, of necessity, straddle administrative borders. So the public bodies that produce statistics – and there are a lot of such bodies – must work together, at least as much in the interests of supporting users and decision-making in Scotland as in supporting those whose interests are focused elsewhere.

In this respect there are no self-contained islands in the world of official statistics. We see the same argument applying at the European level. Of course each country must produce the statistics it needs; but the case for common standards and cooperation is often strong, regardless of whether ones focus is local or international.

The Authority’s objective is to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. This concept of “serving the public good” will be our guiding principle. In short, the Authority believes the public good must be defined in terms of a well-founded, well-researched understanding of the needs of users of official statistics – those people who decisions or actions will be influenced by statistical information.

Whilst some of those users of statistics will, and do, argue passionately for greater harmonisation of statistical practice across the administrations of the United Kingdom, and indeed beyond, others will, and do, argue for figures that focus on local issues and are tuned to local circumstances. The Statistics Authority will be concerned to explore with care the case for further harmonisation between the administrations, looking to achieve as much consistency and coherence between the statistics of all four countries as it is possible to achieve. Any change in this regard must be justified by clear user needs.

User needs will also be at the heart of National Statistics Assessment function (a statutory kite mark if you wish to think of it as such), which will be the Authority’s principal tool in underwriting the quality of official statistics wherever they are produced in the UK. Our assessment findings will be reported to this Parliament (Scotland) as well as the others. Our reports will not hesitate to draw attention to areas of weakness and propose improvements – but I hope we will always do so in a spirit of a shared objective for supporting good administration and public accountability. The Scottish Parliament’s role in scrutinising our findings and, where appropriate, challenging the bodies that produce the statistics, will be critical in building an ever stronger statistical service.

In fulfilling our responsibilities to statistical users, the Authority recognises that our duties are two-fold with regard to official statistics relating to Scotland.

First, we have a duty to assess the statistical outputs that are produced by Scottish bodies, to ensure they are of sufficient quality to warrant user trust.

Second we have an equal obligation to assess statistics relating to Scotland produced in Whitehall or elsewhere to ensure they meet user needs, not least the needs of users in Scotland.

To help us make this a reality, I am pleased to announce that the Authority will have an Assessment team based in Edinburgh. Their duties will not be restricted to Scottish statistical issues and neither will they be the only staff of the Authority to look at those issues, but I can say that no Scottish statistical question will be considered without their involvement.

The Statistics & Registration Services Act allows for the Scottish Government to determine its own policies with regard to such matters as pre-release access to statistics. However, while the Authority recognises the need, in certain instances, for specific local solutions to local issues we are also seeking to agree certain minimum uniform standards across the whole of UK statistics. These will be reflected in the Code of Practice for National Statistics that will be introduced in the next few months. The Authority will meet tomorrow here in Edinburgh to sign-off the consultation document on the Code of Practice which will then be published and we hope to finalise it towards the end of this year. I would encourage all who care about statistics to cast an eye over the revised Code – it is quite short – and let us know what you think. We will be very open to suggestions on how to improve it.

All the members of Statistics Authority are very aware that we have to prove that we can be a force for steadily improving the statistical service and equally, improving public trust in that service. We look forward to working with the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Government and Scottish users of statistics to do precisely that.

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