From loneliness to the high street: how the ONS is filling the data gaps in policymaking

Written by Beckie Smith on 10 July 2019 in Feature
Feature

Two years after he took up his post, Iain Bell, deputy national statistician for population and public policy, tells CSW how the agency has tapped new data sources to fill evidence gaps and improve policymaking

Photo: Flickr/Adrian Scottow 

Two years ago, freshly-appointed deputy national statistician Iain Bell wrote about his vision for the Office for National Statistics' work on population and public policy. He wanted to take the progress the ONS had made on implementing its 2015 Be­­tter Statistics, Better Decisions strategy – which aimed to “ensure that statistics meet the need of policymakers across areas such as migration, crime and health” – and build on it.

“There have been notable strides in improving our statistics by working together across government – particularly in health where the joint working across the producers of statistics are increasingly making it easier for people to find and navigate the data they need," Bell wrote for CSW.

“But we must go further and better exploit the new data sources coming available.”


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Today the agency has published a “year ahead” framework plotting out its work over the next 12 months on population and public policy: namely “shining a light on society for decision making from citizens to the heart of government”.

It will do so in three ways, according to the population and public policy framework: by producing high-quality, timely and granular statistics; providing analysis and insight to address societal issues; and using innovative methods and data sources to create new outputs and products.

The PPP framework builds on the last two years of work by Bell and his colleagues, who have already made significant progress towards that goal.

“Traditionally, ONS statistics were based on large-scale surveys, often the biggest of their kind regularly undertaken in the UK,” Bell says. Now, through its census and data collection transformation programme, the agency is using more administrative and other non-survey source data “to help us to better understand society and answer challenging questions”, he explains.

Expanding the roster of data sources it uses has helped the ONS to fill gaps in public data and develop more nuanced insights into datasets that officials and politicians can use to improve policymaking.

“There are a number of areas where I would say we’ve had an impact,” Bell says, citing ONS work on loneliness, student suicides and the high street as areas where a policy impact is beginning to emerge.

Its work on loneliness is just one way the ONS is “filling evidence gaps to understand society today” in a way that will help steer the government’s approach to tackling the problem, explains Bell.

“Everyone thought loneliness was about older people, but our work showed that 16 to 24-year-olds were the age group who were most lonely,” he explains.

“This work has been critical to government and the investment they have made to tackle loneliness.”

In April, prime minister Theresa May announced that the government would work the first ever cross-departmental strategy to tackle loneliness in England. She has enlisted the ONS to come up with a set of national measures for loneliness, which is working with a officials, charities, academics and others ahead of publishing its recommendations later this year.

A data-gathering exercise on rates of suicide among higher-education students also challenged assumptions, Bell said. The ONS has pulled together coroners’ death registration records and figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority to publish a robust estimate for the first time.

“By linking the two together, we were able to show that yes, the numbers and rates were growing, but actually the prevalence of suicide among students was not as high as the general population,” Bell explains. The figures, published in January, also showed the rate of deaths by suicide was much higher among male than female students.

That work has helped to inform public health strategy, Bell says, as health bodies “have never had data on what was going on in universities”.

And the ONS’s work looking at high streets with the mapping agency Ordnance Survey will help inform decision-making in local government, he says. It showed the nature of high streets is changing – although retail businesses are shrinking, other forms of leisure businesses are growing, and the number of people living close to a high street is growing more quickly than in other areas.

And as well as generating the figures policymakers need, the ONS is working on ways to help them access and use it. After all, Bell says, “it’s also important the data reaches the right audience.”

“We’ve developed new and innovative ways of telling stories with data,” he says. The agency has improved its statistical releases and published interactive tools such as charts, maps, quizzes and calculators, “putting the user right at the heart of the story”.

Writing for CSW two years ago, Bell said: “There have been notable strides in improving our statistics by working together across government – particularly in health where the joint working across the producers of statistics are increasingly making it easier for people to find and navigate the data they need.

“But we must go further and better exploit the new data sources coming available.”

After two years of helping to lead the charge on improving those statistics, Bell is encouraged that some of the areas the ONS has looked at are already beginning to have an impact.

There is more to follow, including a piece of work looking at human capital, which will help to underpin how the Treasury assesses value in public services in its upcoming Spending Review.

And that approach – focusing on users, improving communication, using new data sources and filling evidence gaps – “are at the heart of the PPP Year Ahead released today”, Bell says.

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Beckie Smith
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Flickr/Adrian Scottow
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