The path to becoming UKSA chair

It’s a funny process: application, long list, short list, interview and selection – the usual stuff – are followed by a confirmation hearing by PACAC (the parliamentary committee), a “debate” and vote in the House of Commons, and then confirmation by the Queen. Sir Robert Chote will officially be starting in his role as soon as the letter arrives from Her Majesty, if it hasn’t already. The process offers some checks and balances, and is evolving or has at least been a bit different for each of the four chairs. The subtleties of the process are worth recording and understanding, but probably do little to determine the success, or not, of a chair. Perhaps it is inevitable with all such public appointments that the selection process is opaque with no one being sure who is really selecting any given candidate for a vacant role.

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Hancock’s call for better NHS statistics

Statistics supplied by the NHS in the four nations need to be reviewed to cover at least two issues: first, to ensure that there are enough common data points in all four to allow the provision of services to be compared and, second, identify what each of the four NHSs published before, during and after the pandemic to see if key information was temporarily or permanently lost. These are my conclusions based on an intervention by Matt Hancock MP (and one time Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) in a parliamentary debate last week. Jeremy Hunt MP also asked for better information about manpower planning in the NHS. It seems that the people who know, think we need better data on health provision even if “the system” does not. The NHS has arm’s length independence, and government and regulators don’t seem fussed, but it might be in the public interest to have the numbers.

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Communication of Covid-19 statistics

The Royal Statistical Society held the first of four evidence sessions on Covid-19 data on 5 April. The key messages will feed into the RSS contribution to the official Covid-19 public inquiry. I was able to speak (in a two minute slot!) and my main message was (a) that the (mostly tax-payer funded) producers of data and reports should have made their outputs much easier to find and (b) that the BBC, as the dominant broadcaster, should have ensured that we had the best data, presented independently of the news reporting. (The second RSS evidence session, co-chaired by me, will be on the data itself. Get involved!)

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UKSA chair confirmation hearing: the vision is clear

Sir Robert Chote had his confirmation hearing in front of PACAC, the parliamentary committee today. It was a strong performance, stronger than any of the predecessors in that role, so it would be a surprise if his appointment is not confirmed. It is clear that he comes to the job with an ambitious plan and a clear sense of what can be done to help statistics really deliver for users and policy makers. Interesting times.

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UKSA review – hidden in plain sight

“Is a review happening?” “What review?” “Who is conducting the review??” “What’s the scope of the review?” “Has it been announced?” These and many other questions will hopefully soon be answered! Many in the statistics community have been aware of the illogicality of elements written into the 2007 Statistics Act but were prepared to see how it worked out in practice. Alas, recent years have delivered a growing evidence base of weaknesses in the system that mean that delivery of its key objective of “promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good” has been slow. In short, a review is needed.

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UKSA-thinking as Norgrove leaves

The end of the five-year term of Sir David Norgrove as chair of UKSA is a good time to take stock of UKSA thinking. Norgrove has been a reclusive chair, who has kept appearances and comment to a minimum so we have little to go on. One source is the (near-obligatory, roughly annual) session in front of PACAC, a committee of the House of Commons. This blog has my main take-aways from the UKSA session last October. Much of the evidence was confused or platitudinal. Perhaps the most striking section was an attempt to rewrite history on the dual role of regulator and producer. Flying in the face of common opinion, he said “I don’t think we needed, in reality, to improve the independence.” This view is at least consistent with the UKSA board’s relative inactivity. There’s nothing to change if everything is fine! I think he believes that everything is fine – and it’s easier to believe that if you avoid the day to day battles on statistics, do not engage publicly with the big issues of the day, skip outreach and ignore parliamentary reports. (Norgrove seems to have ignored – or be in denial about – the 2019 PACAC report: “Governance of official statistics: redefining the dual role of the UK Statistics Authority; and re-evaluating the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007“) Let’s hope his successor will appreciate the significance of the live issues and give more weight to views from parliament.

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Privileged access for academics. Why?

Brief note: I have written to Sir Ian Diamond, National Statistician, to ask why academics get the inside track on ONS and government statistical matters? The immediate prompt is “The Government Data Science Festival 2022” described as “a space for the government and public sector data science community, and colleagues in the academic sector, to come together to learn, discover, share and connect.” Shouldn’t it be just government, or open? Why not data scientists from the private sector and start ups? Couldn’t all in the data science world learn something? (I will update this blog when/if I get a response.)

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Where are the statistics on the five giants?

Lord Peter Hennessy’s latest book “A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid” is out today. It’s impossible to read it without realising that there’s a huge statistical challenge implied by so many of the pages. The UK’s government statisticians never really got to grips with measuring Beveridge’s ‘five giants’ – want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. So will they do any better with Hennessy’s big five for the post-Covid era – social care, social housing, technical education, the fourth industrial revolution (artificial intelligence) and climate change?

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Levelling up: data plan needed

Levelling up is a core government policy with wide support. Fully understanding the problems that need to be resolved and tracking progress will require the aggregation and presentation of existing data and the development of new data. Urgently. February’s White Paper only set out the highest of high-level strategies regarding data and statistics. It’s a start but hopefully those leading this initiative will in the months ahead set out what the new resource will look like and when it’ll be up and running, even if that’s some time away. A lack of visible progress from the government statisticians in the rest of this year will suggest to users that there is not the appetite or ability to drive this project and that it’ll fall by the wayside as other subnational data projects have.  

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Frustrated – OSR and me together!

The OSR finds it “quite frustrating” when ministers or officials use a number in public that is not sourced and otherwise published. I discovered this reading the evidence session from last October when UKSA appeared in front of MPs on PACAC. In my dealings with the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), based on the most recent case I brought to their attention, I get very little sense of their frustration. Indeed, it seems that a department can get away with a lot so long as they repeat the positive mantra about the future. My frustration is still there!

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