Statistical leadership: make your analytical insights count

Data and analysis are fundamental to understanding and addressing many of society’s most important issues, and this has never been more apparent than during the coronavirus pandemic.

At the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) we see strong statistical leadership as essential for:

  • supporting confidence in the statistics and data published by government
  • ensuring that the statistics which are produced serve the public good

Effective statistical leadership helps to ensure that the right data and analysis exist in the first place, that they are used at the right time to inform decisions, and that they are communicated clearly and transparently in a way that supports confidence in the data, and in the decisions made based on them.

These topics are explored in our recent review of statistical leadership in government, which highlights the importance of government(s) showing leadership and being role models for the use of data and evidence.

Statistics are an essential public asset which should serve the public good and answer society’s most important questions. But to ensure that statistics can do this effectively, we need organisations to demonstrate statistical leadership, both in how they produce statistics, and in how they use statistics.

In the review, we set out two outcomes that need to be realised to help ensure effective statistical leadership both now, and in the future:

  1. Statistics, data and analysis must be used effectively to inform government decisions and support society’s information needs
  2. Statisticians – and other analytical professions in government – must feel empowered to provide leadership and feel positive about their career development and prospects

Supporting confidence by answering important questions

We have all seen or heard examples of strong statistical leadership during the pandemic. Statisticians who can show leadership within the profession and across their own and other organisations by engaging with important policy questions and understanding the context of their statistical work, are increasingly valued.

In this way, innovation, collaboration and taking a system-wide view when producing new statistical outputs are essential aspects of effective statistical leadership and are helping to answer society’s most important questions.

But all government officials have an important role to play in championing the use of evidence and being confident in engaging with analytical experts. Whether this is senior ministers when they communicate statistics, officials drawing on evidence for policy decisions or in communications, or analysts showing leadership in the production or provision of statistics and analysis, strong statistical leadership needs to be demonstrated at all levels of government.

And on a fundamental level, transparency and clarity of communication when statistics are used publicly by anyone, helps to support public confidence in the statistics produced, promotes trustworthiness in the figures, and in the decisions based on them. So, supporting confidence in statistics is the responsibility of all officials and ministers, across all organisations.

An evidence-based culture

In a decentralised statistical system, different organisational structures have their own advantages and disadvantages. However, we found that effective statistical leadership is perhaps mostly dependent on a culture which values analysis, including senior leaders who champion the use of evidence and actively encourage analytical input.

Where there is a strong message that statistics, data and analysis are valued, we found it was much easier for analysts to have an input into important decisions at an early stage, meaning that decisions are more likely to be evidence based and effective.

An evidence-based culture can also lead to more resources and dedicated professional time for senior statisticians, and a stronger professional identity for statisticians within their departments. And in terms of empowering statisticians’ voices, we have seen there are clear benefits for statisticians, governments and wider society, when statisticians have greater freedom to engage openly both within and outside government.

By giving statisticians the necessary space and autonomy to provide independent authoritative insights, organisations have the potential to enhance their own trustworthiness, and promote public confidence in their decisions, through the transparency demonstrated by providing analysts with this autonomy.

Fit for the future

Strong statistics are supported by skilled statisticians and investment in fit-for-purpose systems, which enable data to be stored correctly and analysed and presented effectively. Statisticians also need to feel positive about their careers and be supported to make time to develop their skills and good practice.

We found that there was a need for greater support and mentoring to facilitate career planning and progression, and once experienced analysts leave statistical roles or the civil service to take up other opportunities, routes back into senior statistical leadership roles are unclear.

We also found there is a lack of comprehensive data to better understand the make-up of the statisticians working across government to help monitor changes in the profile and characteristics of the statistics profession and any progress made in addressing possible inequalities over time.

Statisticians can help with this by sharing their career and diversity information through relevant official channels to enable a better understanding of the overall profile, distribution and seniority of analysts in government.

What do you think?

We are keen to support the GSS’s progress in realising these outcomes and to get feedback and facilitate discussion around these important issues. We are running two online events related to each of the outcomes.

  1. Outcome one event – statistics, data and analysis are used effectively to inform government decisions and support society’s information needs. This session is relevant to all analysts and will consider the role all analysts can play in supporting this outcome.
    Tuesday, 20 April 3pm to 4.30pm.
  2. Outcome two event – statisticians feel empowered to provide leadership and feel positive about their career development and prospects. This session will focus on statisticians but is open to anyone in an analytical profession with an interest.
    Friday, 30 April 10:30am to 11:55am.

Alternatively, if you are unable to attend, have other feedback or would like to discuss any aspects of this review, please email regulation@statistics.gov.uk.

We look forward to seeing you and hearing your views.

Oliver Fox-Tatum
Alexander Amaral-Rogers
Oliver joined the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) in 2014 and leads OSR's work on statistical leadership. He also leads their regulatory work on housing, planning and local services statistics and worked on the refresh of the Code of Practice. Prior to joining the team, Oliver worked at Office for National Statistics – in household survey design and management and as a pensions analyst.