How can official statistics better serve the public good?

How good are government statistics? In a recent seminar the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) asked members of the Government Statistical Service for three words they would use to describe government statistics.

Among the top words we got back were:

  • trustworthy
  • quality
  • informative

It was striking how closely these aligned to the three pillars of our Code of Practice for Statistics – trustworthiness, quality and value – and encouraging to us, as the regulator of official statistics, to hear our message echoing with others 

Official statistics play a central role in answering society’s most important questions. The most salient questions currently facing society concern the COVID-19 pandemic, its impacts and societal responses to it. Data and analysis have been crucial in informing government and individual’s decisions and supporting public understanding.  

But the uses of official statistics extend far beyond the pandemic into peoples’ everyday lives. Whether you are; making decisions as a head teacher, choosing your child’s school, developing policy on social housing, or trying to decide whether and where you should buy a house, have an interest in your local library remaining open, or are considering the country’s major economic decisions, you may well be using official statistics. This is why it’s so important that the UK’s statistical system responds to society’s information needs with insightful statistics.  

In a world of increasingly abundant data, expectations are higher. Individuals have become accustomed to information on many aspects of society in near real time with increasingly detailed breakdowns. Official statistics need to respond to these demands for information. 

Our work as a regulator of official statistics puts us in a unique position to reflect on the UK government statistical system and, in July, we set out our view on the current state of government statistics 

At their best, statistics and data produced by government are insightful, coherent, and timely. They are of high policy-relevance and public interest. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing the kind of statistical system that we’ve always wanted to encourage – responsive, agile and focusing on users.

However, the statistical system does not consistently perform at this level across all its work. In our report we address eight key areas where improvements could be made across the system:

  1. statistical leadership 
  2. voluntary application of the code, beyond official statistics 
  3. quality assurance of administrative data 
  4. communicating uncertainty 
  5. adopting new tools, methods and data sources 
  6. telling fuller stories with data 
  7. providing authoritative insight 
  8. user engagement 

In each area, as well as talking about what we would like to see, we highlight examples of statistical producers already doing things well, which others can learn from and build on.  

Our five-year Strategic Business Plan sets out our vision and priorities for 2020-2025, and how we, as OSR, will contribute to fostering the Authority’s ambitions for the UK statistics system. In all our work, we will continue to champion the work producers do, celebrate the things they do well, and encourage them to continue to improve the statistics they produce so that, together, we can ensure that official statistics better serve the public good.  

Please get it touch with helen.miller-bakewell@statistics.gov.uk if you’d like to discuss the report further. 

Helen Miller-Bakewell
Louise Foster-Key
Helen is a Statistics Regulator at the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR). Before joining OSR in 2019, Helen worked in the Cabinet Office, delivering the People Survey – the staff survey for the Civil Service. She has also had roles in DCMS and Defra, producing National Statistics.