The short-term economic output indicators are among the most important, high profile statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), providing some of the earliest signals about the health and momentum of the UK economy, including consumer and business confidence. They inform decisions that affect the daily lives of everyone in the UK, such as interest rates. They are used by a wide range of organisations and people for making and monitoring economic policy, and for informing day-to-day and strategic decisions.
The UK Statistics Authority has today published three related Assessment Reports on Short-term Economic Output Indicators, produced by ONS. The first report covers the preliminary estimate of Gross Domestic Product, Index of Production, and Index of Services statistics ; the second report covers statistics on Retail Sales ; and the third report covers statistics on construction output and new orders.
Overall, these reports find that ONS complies with much of the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. Users who engaged with the Assessment team as part of this assessment reported that the statistics largely meet their needs. ONS produces and publishes the statistics in a timely way, to a pre-announced timetable, and engages effectively with the key institutional users of the statistics. But it is wrong to focus just on these well-known institutions, like the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility. More than most sets of statistics, this package of outputs speaks to a very wide range of audiences for a wide range of uses, from guiding business decisions to acting as a general barometer of the economy.
In light of this enormous public significance, the range of Requirements included within these reports reflect the fact that ONS is not doing all that it can to extract maximum value from the statistics. Many of the requirements relate to ONS communicating more effectively about some aspects of the statistics, or the processes involved in producing them. ONS does not consistently produce an adequate narrative to explain what the statistics mean, and could enhance their utility by giving more prominent reference to the material in the separate analytical documents that it produces, which draw together overall messages from a range of economic statistics (including those on the labour market). And while ONS has undertaken work to understand and measure the quality of the statistics, we agree with users that ONS needs to present information about uncertainty more clearly and more prominently.
Overall, these issues might reflect a situation within this pressurised area of ONS where the scope for highly skilled professional analysts to be able to stand back from the detail of the production process could be improved. Being able to step back would allow those experts to be able to undertake more activities that have potential to add significant public value to these statistics.
Ed Humpherson, Head of Assessment, UK Statistics Authority