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Spy-on-the-wall: beyond better statistics

A few weeks ago, I was an ONS Internal Communications fly/spy-on-the-wall at the high-level ‘Beyond Better Statistics’ conference in London. If I am completely honest, I didn’t know what to expect and wasn’t sure if it would be interesting, mind-numbingly boring, or somewhere in between. There was the added concern for me personally that it was highly likely I would be surrounded by many senior people in suits, which can cause me to come out in a serious and debilitating rash. I need not have worried however. The event was genuinely fascinating and there were even a couple of other people wearing jeans and one wearing shorts (I won’t divulge any names – what goes on at ‘Beyond Better Statistics’ should stay at ‘Beyond Better Statistics’).


John Pullinger, the National Statistician, had invited all Senior Civil Servants from right across the Government Statistical Service (GSS) to a conference to discuss the future. Specifically, the event was an opportunity for the leaders of the statistical system to start considering plans for what happens as we come to the end of the period covered by our ‘Better Statistics, Better Decisions (PDF)strategy.

Throughout the day, attendees would be asked to think about what big opportunities and challenges we’ll need to consider in the coming years; how analytical leaders across departments (and professions) can come together to make the most of the opportunities; and what would we do if some significant event, disaster or set of circumstances required the statistical system to respond urgently.

The agenda began with Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the Authority, who introduced a session called ‘A statistical system for the future’. He asked attendees to think about what in an ideal world, they would like to see by 2025, that would make them proud to be members of the GSS. The session made use of interactive polls, so the responses could be used as part of a reflections session at the end of the day.

At the end of that session, I found it interesting to hear what Sir David himself thinks is the biggest challenge for the GSS in the coming years – he said that “the biggest challenge is not technology, or money, but culture – we need to get better at working together across departments and teams in an open way”. This theme, around the need to change our culture, kept coming up throughout the day, and is certainly something which has been recognised and has started to be addressed here at ONS.

Jonathan Athow, Deputy National Statistician for Economic Statistics then gave an interesting presentation on the power of data, and along with some colleagues from Department for Education (DfE) gave some real-life examples of the benefits of harnessing data to inform and improve people’s lives. The DfE example of experimental Longitudinal Education Outcomes showed how powerful linking datasets can be and the huge opportunities we have to take advantage of. Jonathan ended the session by saying that he believed that all the people in the room – the leaders of the GSS – collectively need to do a better job of being inspiring leaders and really explaining to the public (and us!), all the opportunities and benefits which the data revolution affords us.

The next session was a panel discussion on data ethics, chaired by Dame Moira Gibb, former non-executive member of the UK Statistics Authority Board. Moira invited the panel (Will Moy from Full Fact, Jonathan Athow and Clare Baker from DfE) to give their observations on data ethics – an issue which is clearly going to be absolutely key to maintaining the public’s trust in the way we use their data in the future. It was interesting to hear Will issue a challenge to the GSS – he claimed that if it is possible to do so, it would be unethical for government statisticians and analysts not to link, harness and utilise data as much as possible for the public good. An interesting perspective. Again, the discussion returned to the need for more confident leadership across the GSS, and the ability to clearly explain the public value of ethical data sharing.

The final session of the morning focussed on the analytical professions and kicked off with a presentation by Gareth Clancy from ONS Knowledge, Learning and Capability division who has been leading work on the new  Analysis Function and its strategy, ‘Better analysis, better delivery’. The Function is a federative collaboration between a number of analytical professions with the aim of delivering research, evidence and advice to a consistent, professional standard.

John Pullinger, then chaired a panel discussion featuring Sue Bateman, Head of Profession for Digital, Data and Technology, Tony O’Connor who leads the Government Operational Research Service, Ed Humpherson from the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) and Martin Clarke from the Government Actuary’s Department. A common theme seemed to be breaking down silos and how we have “more in common than separates us” – bringing the professions together under a function means we can leverage our size and access the top levels of the Civil Service. The standout from this session for me was Ed Humpherson from OSR setting out his ambition for a time in the future when he hopes “Lies, damned lies and statistics” will be nothing but a quaint, antiquated phrase that journalists don’t even think of wheeling out any longer.


After lunch, Iain Bell, Deputy National Statistician for Population and Public Policy, introduced a session which was designed to grab attention and put the whole room under pressure. It was a crisis planning exercise called ‘Stat of Emergency’ (ba dum tss!) which aimed to test the ability of the leadership of the GSS to respond to an imaginary (but potentially feasible) situation. Iain explained a scenario whereby a full quarantine and lock-down had been set up around the city of Bristol, due to the outbreak of a deadly flu epidemic. Attendees were asked to put themselves into groups and each group was allocated a key workstream (micro and macro-economic impacts of the epidemic, the transport and logistical implications, health considerations etc.). The challenge was for each team to brainstorm what briefing (in terms of sources of data, statistics and analysis from right across the GSS), could (and should) be provided to the Prime Minister and COBRA (the Government’s emergency planning committee) within an hour, a day and then a week, to help inform their decision making throughout the crisis.

Clearly, the scenario was invented, but it wasn’t that far-fetched. It got me thinking that statisticians and analysts must have been very much involved in providing evidence and advice to the Government during all the major events, disasters and emergencies in recent times – from the outbreak of Foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 to the petrol protests in 2005, to the 2007 terrorist attacks in London and the riots in cities across the UK in summer 2011. However alarming it might be, it is a good job that our senior leaders do plan for the vital part the GSS might have to play in these kinds of events in future!

After a short coffee break and when people had calmed down a bit after the stresses and strains of the Bristol flu epidemic, John Pullinger and Sir David Norgrove closed the conference with their reflections on the day and a group discussion. There were several common themes which had recurred during the day – the need to be more joined up and work better together across government, the need to continue to transform the way we collect, link and use data, and most importantly, the need to be more inspiring and more confident and outgoing as leaders. I think Sir David put it quite well when he said that the GSS needs to “grab opportunities by the scruff of the neck”.

I can genuinely say that I found the whole day thought-provoking. It is good to be a fly-on-the-wall sometimes and just sit and listen. And it was an added bonus that despite the number of suits in the room, there was no sign of my rash. The great and the good of UK statistics are actually a fairly down to earth bunch.

Alex Elton-Wall