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A cross-departmental working group on smoking statistics

I’ve been chairing a cross-departmental working group on smoking statistics for a few years now. This was a group set up in response to criticisms from the United Kingdom Statistics Authority on the lack of coherence across government producers of health statistics.

Basically, the criticism was labelled at my own organisation, NHS Digital, plus Public Health England, Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Department of Health and Social Care for often producing outputs on similar subjects at different times and sometimes using different definitions and methodologies.

The smoking group was a forerunner for the subsequent topic networks which have since been established and luckily for me it was initially set up by ONS before I took over the chair’s role from the second meeting onwards. Since that initial meeting the group has developed a much greater understanding of what we all do and how we do it, and we’ve also managed to add to some of our outputs to meet user demand.

One of our key achievements was to publish four reports on smoking from three organisations on the same day with a joint press release to make it much easier for the media to understand how the different outputs relate to each other.  It wasn’t easy and the painful disagreement on how to round a percentage lives long in the memory (particularly as I lost). But, the eventual outcome was worthwhile.

We’re also now working on consolidating some methodologies and slightly altering who does what to remove some duplication which has been in the system for years.

When I say I “chair” the meetings, I really facilitate them making sure we all meet to keep each other updated on developments, discuss our concerns and ensure that actions are documented and followed up.

Having a group like this has also provided an immediate panel of subject matter experts who can be consulted on data needs from new policies, or changes to survey questions and methodologies. Some of the discussions are outside my control, e.g. finding money to run new surveys to monitor a new policy, but I can at least make sure the customer for that work has somewhere to go for advice and can find out what they need to do next.

We’ve met four times in total now and our next stage of development is to invite some external users into our group as we’ve tackled a lot of the central government issues now. So, watch this space for some further learning!

Paul Niblett, NHS Digital

Paul Niblett