UKSA Board – What next?

The Bean Review has been published and, it seems, has been universally acclaimed as a thorough report with widespread support for its recommendations. It is now official: the 2007 statistics legislation has failed to deliver. Yet, Bean was published over two weeks ago and still we have little idea of what will change as a result. This blog explores the options.

My previous blog summarised the problems. They are many and they run deep. It will take time, money and effort to get the government statistics machine back on the right track. It will need the various players in the game to be pulling in same direction. Most have already declared and seem to be up for it.

The Bean Review set out its stall on issues of governance from paragraph 5.73 onwards. The Review set out two recommended actions ……..

Recommended Action 23: A high-level group comprising representatives of HM Treasury, the Bank of England and other key stakeholders and users should be established to facilitate frank and open discussion with the UKSA Board.

Recommended Action 24: The UKSA regulatory function should be subsumed within a new ‘Independent Regulation and Evaluation Office’ (IREO) charged with assessing the trustworthiness and quality of official statistics as well as ONS’s effectiveness; the head of the IREO would report to the UKSA Board and publish an annual assessment of ONS performance and the whole statistical estate.

It is also worth noting two actions that were not included.

1.   A change in legislation. Reopening it would be ideal given the ambiguity in the existing Act. Yet it never seemed a likely recommendation as it:

  • is not a natural thing for the government to do as it would be time consuming and (sadly) a low priority.
  • would also be awkward for the Treasury to support given it was a lead player in delivering the existing Act.
  • is arguably not necessary. A widely held view at the time of the legislation was that it was a mess. We will probably never know why the Board chose to act as it did but dodgy legislation did not force it down that route. It just happens, now we see, that despite hoping and willing change, the change has not occurred.

2.   Bringing UKSA under direct ministerial control. It would have flown in the face of the commitments to independence but it was not out of the question. Bean clearly gave it some thought. He called it “natural” (para 5.103) and the “obvious solution” (para 5.105) but felt that other recommendations meant that the current assignment could work. Political involvement need not be bad and for proof of that we need look no further than the Treasury’s commissioning of such a thorough study, with compelling conclusions. The Treasury has saved UKSA from itself. And saved the nation’s statistics.

Treasury support is firm. Right at the top of the Budget speech, just behind the headlines, the Chancellor said: “Mr Deputy Speaker, let me turn to the economic forecasts. I want to thank Robert Chote and his team at the Office for Budget Responsibility. To make sure they have available to them the best statistics in the world I am today accepting all of the recommendations of Sir Charlie Bean’s excellent report.” The Cabinet Office was a joint signatory to the official statement.

The Bean Review also talked of the importance of parliamentary committees. PACAC (previously PASC) has expertise and formal responsibility for UKSA but now there is added interest from Treasury Committee that held oral evidence with Professor Sir Charles Bean in January and sent a letter to the Review team at the end of February. Two committees is better than one.

As for the statisticians, the National Statistician seems to be trying hard to address the concerns. His new management team is now up and running and he clearly has support in all the right places, including the GDS.

The greatest uncertainty surrounds the UKSA Board. As Bean makes clear (para 5.102): “The UKSA Board is responsible for ensuring that ONS delivers statistics that meet user needs ……. So the Board should also be accountable to government, Parliament, users and the public more generally for achieving that objective”. It allowed the now-exposed weaknesses to rumble on for years, further damaging the nation’s statistics. Now the report is published, it largely falls to UKSA itself to change.

It is hard for anyone off the Board to force change. There does seem to be a gap in how government as a whole works. Bodies are made “independent” for good reasons but it seems there is little way of correcting behaviours if they do not do what the civil service, ministers, stakeholders and customers want. This is what we have here.

UKSA seems to have done little to date – or more precisely it has done nothing that anyone outside the organisation can see. It has announced that it will “consider” the report. Given the speed at which the UKSA Board moves, in the worst case scenario we could be in for a long wait. Its next Board meeting (the first post-Bean) is not for another month.

Stakeholders will be hoping for action from generally long-standing UKSA board members and its secretariat who have largely side-stepped such action when given the chance in the past.

The report on governance from PASC in 2013 offered many suggestions to get the Board back on track but it was largely ignored. (PASC’s Ninth Report of Session 2012-13, Public Trust in Government Statistics: A review of the operation of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (HC 406), published on 25 February 2013, was part of the post-legislative review of the 2007 Statistics Act. I was an adviser to the committee at the time.)

It proposed a number of actions to deliver greater separation and independence:

  • Separate and different looking websites for UKSA and ONS
  • Internal committee structural change
  • Separate accounting officers for UKSA and ONS
  • Dedicated sub-committee of non-execs operating openly
  • Physical separation of UKSA and ONS
  • Separate support, including press officers and secretariat
  • Clarity about reporting lines
  • More dynamic relationship with Parliament

And yet very little if anything changed as a result. The Bean report is a much more thorough report, better resourced and had full access to inner UKSA workings.

What options are there for the Board, perhaps after revisiting the PASC suggestions?

First they have to consider the Bean recommendations. Action 23 about the high-level group comprising representatives of HM Treasury, the Bank of England and other key stakeholders and users should be easy enough to establish.

Action 24 is all together more tricky. The new ‘Independent Regulation and Evaluation Office’ (IREO) “charged with assessing the trustworthiness and quality of official statistics as well as ONS’s effectiveness” requires a fundamental change to the core of UKSA’s being.

While grappling with that, what else could they do?

They could change staff, including some or all of:

  • new chair (Sir Andrew Dilnot’s term ends in a year in any case)
  • new Board members (a recruitment process started last autumn to which it was rumoured 100 applications were received. Yet the Board reappointed two of its own members, even though the terms will take them over the length of time that prompted other non-execs to leave post, and then one new member.)
  • overhaul secretariat staff – rotation to and from Newport?

New Board structures:

  • new “components” of Board – spaces given to users, or key stakeholders
  • separate twin roles with, say, a couple of non-execs being only concerned with ONS oversight. The main and fully independent UKSA Board, including more users, could then be very open and transparent in its activities.

New Board practices

  • deliver openness and transparency of plans and outcomes
  • set clear rules/distinction about governance and management (At times it looks as if the UKSA Board wants to manage and thus doesn’t do governance properly.)
  • extend hours/commitment of Board members
  • ensure Board members have a public face
  • quasi public evaluation of non-execs

Other options will have to include:

  • a review of parliamentary relations with the committees
  • fully review code of practice (it seems UKSA now wants to do this having resisted a year ago!)
  • reorganising the ONS, and determining which sections return to London to build up its presence in the capital.
  • Fully resource the assessment function. The assessment part of UKSA is under-resourced and it is shrinking as a result of the UKSA board decisions. It will now have to divert money. In fact money spent on the non-ONS activities are trivial (1% of the UKSA total?) and declining over time.

Should UKSA display reluctance or lack of urgency we might expect the Chancellor, perhaps working with Matthew Hancock the Cabinet Office minister who has a role in UKSA management, to get more actively involved. One interpretation of the Treasury statement is ominous.

While the contents reflect the two recommendations as set out by Bean, it leaves the door open for a stronger Treasury role. It said: “The government also welcomes the recommendations for better governance of ONS statistics, including the creation of an Independent Regulation and Evaluation Office, subsuming the existing regulatory function at UKSA. …. It will be made up of key stakeholders directly working with ONS statistical output. ….. The Cabinet Office commits to supporting a high-level group comprising representatives of HM Treasury, the Bank of England and other key stakeholders and users to facilitate frank and open discussion with the UKSA board.”

The UKSA Board will read this and surely be tempted to move swiftly in the knowledge that if it does not it could effectively be usurped by a Treasury dominated IREO.

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