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Harmonisation: The Beach Boys were onto something

If anyone knew the power of harmonisation, they did.

Harmonisation is an often misunderstood and sometimes underappreciated idea. People often think it is just about getting everyone to use exactly the same definitions and concepts in their statistics. Some think it’s just about adding emotional impact to a melody. But these are just two aspects of harmonisation. Harmonisation is about much more than this. It’s the art of improving coherence and comparability of statistics, using a variety of tools.

And it has a number of big benefits for everyone. By reusing existing question designs and definitions for collecting data, we can work more efficiently and avoid reinventing the wheel. If our users can easily compare different sets of statistics and use them in combination, this enhances their utility and creates a government-wide evidence base on cross-cutting topics. And by aligning definitions across datasets, such as in employment or income, we can use them in conjunction to produce new, more efficient ways of measuring the world we live in.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Here in the GSS Harmonisation team (a part of the Best Practice and Impact Division), we are making this happen in three ways:

  1. You may be aware of our suite of harmonised principles, which you can find here. These are recommended question wording, definitions, and output categories, which can be dropped straight into your survey or admin data system.For instance, we have developed a set of questions to measure loneliness which are in use in a range of surveys, supporting the government’s Loneliness Strategy. We are also working with teams at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to ensure that newly developed questions on ethnicity and gender identity can be used in surveys across government, to inform policy makers and the public of how these impact on citizens’ life experiences.
  2. Developing guidance to help users of government statistics compare related but different statistics. Our major piece of work here has been on improving the comparability of homelessness statistics across the UK – you can read Daisie Hutchinson’s report for more information. We will be continuing this approach with another key topic of public interest; affordable housing.
  3. Enabling new uses of existing data by supporting the combination of existing data sources. This is an emerging workstream including assisting the Connected Open Government Statistics (nee GSS Data Project) to integrate multiple datasets which use inconsistent geographies, and investigating how we work with ONS Data Architecture on the integration of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and ONS income data.

We get around.

And helping us to deliver this work is the GSS Harmonisation Champions Network. The Network was launched in early April 2019 and so is very much taking its first steps, but it will provide a cross-government network of advocates, that can identify and take advantage opportunities for harmonisation in their own departments and beyond. You can find more detail on the network here.

Hopefully this blog has made you think about how you can consider harmonisation in your role, or just given you some good vibrations that this work is going on.

Please get in touch via gsshelp@statistics.gov.uk if you would like to know more about our work, or the other great work across the Best Practice and Impact Division (which includes Harmonisation, the Good Practice Team, Quality Centre, and the Methodology Advisory Service).

Sean Mattson
Michelle Bowen
Sean has worked across the GSS in a variety of roles, and currently leads the GSS Harmonisation team in the Best Practice and Impact division of ONS.