Whitehall statisticians deserve beefed-up policy role, watchdog says

Written by Jim Dunton on 26 May 2017 in News
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New UK Statistics Authority chair pledges to push for raised status and seniority for profession

Sir David Norgrove.  Picture credit: Photoshot

The new chair of the UK Statistics Authority is targeting a boost to the policymaking influence of government statisticians as a core goal of his five-year-term of office.

Sir David Norgrove – a former Treasury economist and private secretary to Margaret Thatcher – said Whitehall could and should make better use of its statistics professionals by raising their status and seniority, and ensuring they had input at the highest levels of policymaking.

Norgrove, who took over as UKSA chair from economist Sir Andrew Dilnot in April, said there was a lack of knowledge about the potential contribution statisticians could make and an “anecdotal” understanding in the profession that that more could be done.

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In an interview to be published in the June edition of Civil Service World, Norgrove said he considered that raising the status of statisticians would be an important part of his new role, and not just a task for Government Statistical Service head John Pullinger.

Norgrove said that while government was improving its use of statistics through the analytics professions, the level and status of statisticians in government departments varied hugely.

“The ONS has increasingly played a role in doing the analysis and interpretation of the numbers, but it only produces about 20% of the data series that come out of government, so 80% is produced by departments,” he said. 

“There’s always been a tendency to look for the evidence that supports the policy rather than the other way round. 

“That’s not going to end any time soon, but statisticians have an important role in trying to head that off.”

Norgrove said statisticians had “their fingers in the numbers” and understood key issues better than anyone else in their departments and needed to be able to "shout up" on policy. 

“If you’ve got the knowledge and the expertise, then you’ve earned the right to be at the table making your point,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean that you’ll carry it, but you should be at the table.”

An Institute for Government analysis of the analytical roles in the civil service found around 1,500 statisticians across all departments. 

HM Revenue and Customs accounted for the highest figure, at 330. The Cabinet Office employed 310, the Department for Education 205, the Ministry of Defence 130 and the Department for Communities and Local Government had 120.

As a whole, the analytical professions had a headcount of around 13,700 including departments and their arm's length bodies. In addition to statisticians, those professions include digital, data and technology staff; economists; operational research staff; and social research staff.

IfG head of data and transparency Gavin Freeguard agreed with Norgrove’s assessment of the potential to boost statisticians’ input on policy.

“Statisticians are often kept separated from people making policy,” he said. 

“It’s not so much about statisticians being in the room, it’s about what problem you are trying to solve and what figures you need to do that.”

Freeguard said that while there was a degree of perfectionism about the quality of data-sets required for official publication, statisticians would be able to produce a range of valuable figures that would be invaluable for informing policymaking.

Elsewhere in his CSW interview Norgrove discussed his time in Whitehall, working with Margaret Thatcher, and lessons from the Brexit debate.

 

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