High tempo harmonisation: How the GSS Harmonisation Team are responding to the pandemic

I drink a lot of Pepsi. I really do mean A LOT. As I am writing this it is only 1pm and I am already on my eighth can, but to be honest I don’t think I could have done the work I’ve been doing recently without it.

Among other things, I am half of the duo who designed and published the coronavirus (COVID-19) harmonisation guidance. Before I go on to explain the need for my excessive caffeine consumption, I wanted to say that for this guidance we really need some input from you – please read on to see how you can get involved.

For those of you who don’t know what harmonisation is, it’s a programme of work to make statistics across government more comparable and coherent. Our work is for anyone involved in the collection, production and communication of official statistics. We put out questions for people across government to adopt in their surveys and we write guidance to help users understand what data is and isn’t comparable. The coronavirus (COVID-19) harmonisation guidance includes questions you can use in your survey and guidance to help data users – we hope it will be a useful resource!

Normally, a harmonised principle might take months or years to develop, which is why the current guidance required so much caffeine! The time between when we first spoke to harmonisation champions to the coronavirus (COVID-19) harmonisation guidance being published was less than two months. Suffice to say, we had a crash course in delivering at pace . . .

Our process for harmonising any topic has six stages, each taking months, so you can understand why it normally takes us a while. We go into this much detail because we care about being robust in our outputs, but the current speed of response required across government meant that if we did not intervene quickly there was potential for people to “do their own thing” without support.  The topics we found needed support were: keyworker status, high level impacts of the coronavirus, worry about the coronavirus, and whether or not someone has had the coronavirus.

The reason we’ve been able to act so fast right now is by dipping our toes into the world of agile working. I previously worked in an agile team, and my knowledge of agile principles has been almost as valuable during this time as my Pepsi supply.

Any agile fan will recognise that our work is being delivered iteratively. We prioritised the user needs we gathered and published questions based on good practice and available evidence. By publishing at this stage (before rigorous cognitive testing), we hope to get user feedback on whether we are meeting needs or not.

You have probably guessed that this blog post is promoting the work we have done and you’d be right. To support this work we have two asks of you:

  1. To use the principles we have published in your own data collection if possible
  2. To tell us what new evidence gaps have emerged in your work area as a result of the pandemic

Please get in touch by e-mailing harmonisation@statistics.gov.uk so we can improve what we have published – are these variables useful to you? Is there any other guidance you feel would help? Is there anything you think we should change?

We have already heard back from some users about variables they would find useful, and (fully embracing the agile lifestyle) we immediately started scoping additions and edits. We are constantly adding new requirements to our work and intend to release regular updates to the guidance we have published. Please trust me when I say we really will listen to the feedback we get.

It would be great to hear from you if you have anything to add – if it takes me a while to get back to you please understand that I only have four cans of Pepsi left, so the inevitable caffeine crash is coming soon!

Sofi Nickson
Sofi Nickson
Sofi is a member of the GSS Harmonisation Team based within the Best Practice and Impact division at the Office for National Statistics.