The next Chair of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) need not be a professional statistician, but must have a profound grasp of the system of delivering accurate and reliable statistical information, courage, a willingness to put the needs of all users at the heart of the official statistics system, and imaginative understanding of how best to get numbers over to the public. Since its establishment three years ago, the UKSA has added significant value to the way statistics are prepared and communicated, but more needs to be done if the UK is to have relevant official statistics and if public confidence in them is to improve from its current low level. The appointment now being made is critical.
Official statistics underpin decision making – in business, in central and local government, in parliament and by individuals. Accurate figures help deepen our collective understanding of social and economic dynamics. The promise of the 2007 Statistics and Registration Service Act has yet to be fully realised and the choice of a Chair for the UKSA – a post of national significance – could make a big difference.
Priorities for the new Chair are:
Ensuring that the collection and dissemination of official statistics meet the needs of all users – not just those in central government. Before the 2007 Act the needs of central government were overly prioritised. That is now less true, but further broadening of the audience is required if statistics are “to serve the public good” as specified in the Act. The UK official statistics system needs to be better at identifying and delivering the data that will help improve choices made across our society and economy.
Attempting, together with the National Statistician, to ensure that the official statistics produced by the UK’s decentralised and devolved system are coherent; in particular, that coherence is not jeopardised by individual departments’ decisions during the current round of spending cuts. We regret that ministers have not yet accepted the need for departments to consult and pay attention to the UKSA and the National Statistician when making statistical plans.
Supporting the National Statistician in forming a more coherent Government Statistical Service, developing a stronger “esprit de corps”, and maintaining high professional standards. Increased departmental control over budgets, outbedding of statisticians into policy sections and the reduced number of high-level statistical posts in government have weakened the overall ethos of the service and the ability of official statisticians to gain wide experience.
Acting as an advocate for official statistics and speaking out against misuse of them by politicians (inside or outside government), public bodies or other major entities, or any plans or practices which devalue them.
Maintaining and, where necessary, strengthening the UKSA’s function of scrutinizing the output of official statistics.
Coping with the different, and sometimes conflicting, responsibilities of the Authority. The UKSA has responsibility for both delivery and oversight of statistics. It is the governing body of the Office for National Statistics, but also the body with responsibility for scrutiny and overall quality across the official statistics system. The separation between delivery and oversight could be strengthened, and the new Chair should consider these issues and what changes may be necessary.
The Chair of the UKSA will deal with professional statisticians in the Government Statistical Service, with other civil servants and with ministers as well as interested parties elsewhere. The post holder will have to continue Sir Michael Scholar's record in exercising discretion, avoiding grandstanding, having the courage to stand up to pressure and the judgment to know when to speak out openly.
There is a growing appreciation across society that accurate information about the state of our country and communities is needed to improve personal and business decision-making and public policy. The chair of the UKSA must, both via powers in the 2007 Act and more generally, be a champion of this movement. While the Chair does not need to be a statistician, the postholder must be capable of understanding detailed issues that arise and the interaction between statistical technicalities and policy or other issues.
It is also crucial that the Chair has the full confidence of Parliament, specifically the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee to which the UKSA reports. The UKSA has limited formal powers and needs the support of Parliament to meet its objectives.
Issued by the Royal Statistical Society's National Statistics Working Party, 4 October 2011