This webpage contains information on the governance of decision-making in the UK official statistics system.
The UK Statistics Authority
The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 established the UK Statistics Authority (the “Authority”) as an independent body at arm’s length from government, with direct reporting to the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Act gives the Authority the statutory objective of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics that ‘serve the public good’. This includes:
- informing the public about social and economic matters
- assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy
- regulating quality and publicly challenging the misuse of statistics
The Government Statistical Service (GSS)
The GSS is a cross-government network, spread across a whole range of public bodies, including components of the devolved administrations and UK government departments. Led by the National Statistician, it includes statisticians, researchers, economists, analysts, operational delivery staff, IT specialists and other supporting roles.
The GSS community works together to provide the statistical evidence base required by decision-makers, publishing around 2,000 sets of statistics each year, and providing professional advice and analysis to decision-makers. The Office for National Statistics has an important role at the heart of the GSS, providing guidance, support, standards and training.
Office for National Statistics (ONS)
The ONS is the executive office of the Authority. It is the UK’s National Statistical Institute (NSI) and largest single producer of official statistics in the UK.
The ONS produces statistics on a range of key economic, social and demographic topics. Key services include measuring changes in the value of the UK economy (GDP), estimating the size, geographic distribution and characteristics of the population (including statistics from the census), and providing indicators of price inflation, employment, earnings, crime and migration.
Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR)
The OSR is the regulatory arm of the UK Statistics Authority. It provides independent regulation of all official statistics produced in the UK. It aims to enhance public confidence in the trustworthiness, quality and value of statistics produced by government. It does this through enforcing the Code of Practice for Statistics, via a programme of assessment and designation.
2008: the Authority was created
Since its creation in 2008, the Authority’s governance structure has been developed and streamlined as the organisation established itself and matured.
At foundation, a particular set of arrangements was necessary to a) establish independence from government, and independence between production and regulation, which was central to the legislation, and b) publish a new Code of Practice for Official Statistics and complete the very large programme of work required by the Act to formally assess over 1,000 pre-existing sets of National Statistics against the code.
These fundamental tasks were completed by 2013. By this point the Authority had established itself as an independent organisation and was able to streamline its governance structures. Opportunities to enhance the previous arrangements were identified to help address the challenge of managing and focussing ONS, the need for greater foresight on emerging problems, and to boost strategic and statistical capability.
Structural amendments were made to enhance clarity, help the organisation focus on those things that really matter, best support the lead executives doing the job, and equip the Authority Board to best achieve its objectives while protecting and strengthening the independent regulatory function.
2014: John Pullinger was appointed National Statistician
Following the appointment of John Pullinger as National Statistician in the summer of 2014, a new senior leadership structure for UK Statistics was introduced. This saw the creation of three deputy National Statistician positions with responsibility of helping the National Statistician discharge his responsibilities across the entire statistical system.
The role of the National Statistician was refocused more clearly as the Chief Executive of the Authority and ONS, with a remit for statistical delivery across the whole GSS, and clear accountability to the Authority Board (the “Board”). In parallel the Board took steps to make even clearer the distinct role of the regulatory function.
This revised leadership and governance model helped strengthen expertise and break down silos within different parts of the Authority, ONS and across the wider GSS community.
The UK Statistics Authority’s functions and powers are specified in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, together with its duty to report to Parliament and the devolved legislatures. The Act includes an overall objective for the Board to “promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good” and three principal areas of responsibility:
- the promotion, safeguarding and monitoring of quality, comprehensiveness and good practice in relation to all UK official statistics
- the production of a Code of Practice for Statistics, and assessment of official statistics against the code
- the production of statistics for any matter relating to the UK or any part of it, via the Board’s executive office, ONS
Further governance features
The Board will consist of executive members (i.e. those employed by the Authority, OSR or ONS) and non-executive members (i.e. those external to the Authority, OSR or ONS).
The non-executive members are to be the chair, a crown appointment, and at least five other non-executive members.
The executive members are to be the National Statistician, and two other employees of the Board, appointed by the non-executive members. This means that the Board will always have a strong non-executive majority.
The National Statistician, also a crown appointment, is the Board’s Chief Executive, and must establish the Board’s executive office, ONS. He or she is also the Board’s principal adviser on quality, comprehensiveness and good practice in relation to official statistics.
The Head of Assessment (also known as the Director General for Regulation) is appointed by the non-executive members of the Board, and is the Board’s principal adviser on assessment against the code.
There must be separation of the functions of the National Statistician and the Head of Assessment, so that employees who take part in the production of statistics on behalf of the Board should not be engaged in advising the Board on the assessment of those statistics.
A review of governance in autumn 2014 established a number of core principles: that decision making should be simplified; decisions should be made at the right level; and, wherever possible, governance should provide greater integration between the UK Statistics Authority, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and the Government Statistical Service (GSS).
The governance model
The concept of “first base decision-making” underpins the governance structure to ensure decisions. This means we want decisions to be made in the right place, at the right time, and by those who have the most knowledge and expertise.
To be effective the governance system requires all parts to perform optimally. The model is therefore not a management framework. Business decisions affecting the way in which services are delivered and the strategy is implemented require a conventional management structure to support delivery.
The governance model is based on the following:
- those who are responsible for setting the strategic vision are provided with the necessary space to “lead” the business
- those responsible for monitoring, compliance and setting controls remain sat within a “managing” the business context
- those tasked with operational delivery are provided with space and authority to “deliver” the business with pace
- there are also those asked to “advise” decision makers on complex issues
The Statistics Act left unchanged the un-centralised nature of the UK official statistics system. Each government department that produces official statistics has a statistical Head of Profession who leads and manages the statistical activities within their own department. Some smaller departments and arms’ length bodies have a “lead official” with accountability to a Head of Profession from their sponsor department.
The Heads of Profession are accountable to their departmental management for day to day delivery, but also have a professional accountability to the National Statistician as the head of the GSS.
The Heads of Profession Group
In addition to the formal committee governance, all statistical Heads of Profession are invited to attend a quarterly meeting (the Heads of Profession Group), chaired by the National Statistician. The deputy National Statisticians also attend, as do some senior ONS staff and the Director General for Regulation. These quarterly meetings are used to:
- share best practice
- engage the GSS leadership in the development of thinking
- discuss issues and help find solutions
- maintain relationships and galvanise collective leadership of the statistical system
Part of the rationale for the governance reforms introduced in 2014 was to bring ONS and the wider GSS community closer together. The principle of “GSS by default” has been applied to the entire governance model. The National Statistics Executive Group (NSEG) is the primary executive leadership forum for the GSS, and its system-wide remit is reflected by its membership which includes two statistical Heads of Profession.
Sub-committees of NSEG also have a GSS wide remit to varying degrees; for instance the Statistical Policy and Standards Committee (SPSC) has a particularly strong GSS role due to its focus on policies and standards, while the Portfolio and Investment Committee is focussed on ONS due to its role in managing the ONS investment fund.
To support the work of the formal standing committees and boards, a number of forums, working groups and other committees have been established to support decision making. Some of these are described below, though this is not an exhaustive list.
Heads of Profession Group
A quarterly forum attended by all the statistical Heads of Profession across the GSS. These meetings are used to share best practice, discuss issues and galvanise the collective leadership of the statistical system.
A forum leading on issues related to people in the GSS (i.e. anyone who works with official statistics) and Government Statistician Group (i.e. badged government statisticians).
- advice on the development of people policies and practice
- advice to the statistical Heads of Profession on people issues for decision making
- development and ongoing review of key reference documents such as the Government Statistician Group competency framework and the Continuous Professional Development policy
- oversight of core statistical training programmes and GSS recruitment
Thursday Morning Colleagues
This weekly meeting chaired by the National Statistician is attended by the deputy National Statisticians, ONS Directors, the Authority’s Chief of Staff and the Authority’s Head of Internal Audit. It is a cascade meeting where bullet points from each area are discussed before being disseminated to staff.
Departmental Joint Consultative Committee
This is a committee where trade union representatives and ONS human resources and management meet to discuss, and consult, on organisational wide staffing matters such as pay, absence management and staff welfare.
UK Census Committee
This is a quarterly meeting with the same membership as the Inter Administration Committee, which meets to coordinate census activity across the UK.
Editorial and Communications Group (ECG)
ECG’s remit is to coordinate ONS external communication, and commission new ONS digital content and communication.
- identifies and considers opportunities for repackaging existing ONS outputs to respond to the news agenda
- reviews communication issues and opportunities arising from forthcoming ONS publications
- ensures proportionate handling plans are in place for releases
- produces and reviews a communication grid of forthcoming content on ONS channels
ECG meets once a week and is chaired by the ONS Director of Communications and Policy. Membership of ECG is drawn from right across ONS.
Equality and Diversity Steering Group (EDSG)
This steering group provides the governance for equality, diversity, and inclusion within ONS. It meets three times a year, provides advice and guidance and monitors the progress and implementation of the ONS Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and business area goals.
In addition, the group ensures that the organisation aligns with the Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, and is meeting its legal obligations. The group is led by the National Statistician, and its members are made up of Director General Diversity Champions, and Diversity Network Sponsors.
The group reports into the ONS People and Business Committee on the work underpinning the strategy, and NSEG receives regular updates from EDSG’s sub groups.
The strategic direction of the Authority is set by the Authority Board. Working within the strategy and the priorities set by the Board, the National Statistics Executive Group (NSEG) oversees executive production of a business plan which sets out more details around how the Authority will deliver outcomes which align with the strategy.
This business plan incorporates the “what” and the “how”, ensuring integration of the business plan deliverables with workforce and financial plans. A critical component of this planning is the work undertaken by the Portfolio and Investment Committee which helps to prioritise investment. This work involves discussions around continuing and emerging demands.
Once the core business areas have completed their budgets and the investment portfolio has been ratified, the business plan (which includes the budget) is submitted to NSEG for review and then on to the Authority Board for approval.
Emerging pressures during the year, are discussed by NSEG as required. These discussions may involve workforce or financial demands. If the relevant business area cannot sufficiently resource an emerging pressure then the senior executives in the first instance would look to reprioritise other resources to support the work.
Should that not be an option then a business justification would be required to draw down additional funding from the contingency fund.
Although first base decision making lies at the heart of the governance arrangements, it will inevitably be necessary for some strategic and key operational matters to be escalated to a relevant committee from time to time. In such instances, a paper will need to be prepared summarising the issue and confirming what action is requested.
Before you write a paper
Before you start writing a paper for a board or committee, consider:
- if drafting a paper is the right course of action – your Deputy Director, Director, or a member of the secretariat team will be able to provide advice
- if an individual could make the decision within their existing remit
- what you will be asking of the committee – do they simply need to be informed of an issue or do you require a decision? Are you clear on the purpose of your paper and what you want the outcome to be?
- if this is the right committee for this topic. For example, instead of submitting a paper to NSEG, could another committee have the delegated authority to take the decision?
- the length of your paper – keep to no more than three sides of A4, use plain English, and include any technical explanations as an annex
- the time needed for the commissioning, drafting, and clearance of your paper – check with the secretariat for paper deadlines
Before you submit a paper
Before submission, ensure your paper has been proof-read and check the paper to make sure:
- the background includes a paragraph summarising when the committee last considered the issue and what it decided then
- recommendations are clear
- acronyms are spelled out in full the first time they are used
- job titles are included where staff members are referenced
- all annexes are clearly labelled
- the paper is presented in the correct house style and in line with the correct template (ask the secretariat about the correct template to use)