Body of evidence: exploring government's new analysis function

Written by Mark Smulian on 22 October 2018

Each year the Civil Service Awards celebrates a team or individual who has made excellent use of evidence to support policy or decision making - but what is the government doing to improve the way government as a whole uses different forms of evidence? Mark Smulian finds out more about the newly-formed analysis function 

 

Point out an ‘analyst’ and it might be anyone from a stock market pundit to a white coated figure doing something vaguely alarming with a test tube. Analysts work in a vast range of professions and the formation of the Government Analysis Service this year has drawn on digital and technology specialists, actuaries, economists, engineers, operational researchers, scientists, social researchers and statisticians and data scientists.

Gareth Clancy, head of Government Statistical Service careers, in March described the new function as being there “to support decision making [as] collectively the expertise of 15,000 scientists, engineers and analysts can have a greater impact than the sum of their parts”.

As he said, no matter what someone’s expertise, they are likely to take a better decision if they have both the evidence to support that choice and can demonstrate that they can support that by reference to facts.

At the top of this is John Pullinger, who is head of the analysis function in addition to being chief executive of the UK Statistics Authority, of which the Office for National Statistics is the executive arm.

He explains: “The analysis function is new and recognises what has been happening in areas like commercial services and project management, looking across the whole civil service at what capacity we need and how can we really make it excellent.”

The need for sound analysis has, Pullinger says, “been thrown into pretty sharp focus with Brexit, so we’re trying to get statisticians and economists to come together to answer these tricky questions.

“I expect we will need people expert in different disciplines. If you’re doing complicated statistics you need a statistics degree, but you can only make it count in a civil service context if you are blending it with other colleagues and other knowledge. So I don't see analysis being a new profession; it is a function.”

He says the key goals of the analysis function are to educate members of the profession who will require new data handling skills and “to skill up policy colleagues and increasingly operational colleagues, those for example at the front line of collecting tax or managing borders.  

“They can have figures to think about but not the skills to make sense of them, so we can help them with that.”

Pullinger says this means skills programmes being devised “for the 1%, 50% and 100%”. The 1% are the statistics professionals who handle huge data sets, and the 50% those with significant policy or commercial roles who need to understand sophisticated evidence and be able to make sense of that. The 100% part is “to get everybody to ask hard questions, like: ‘Is that really what it seems to be? Who is telling me this, and why?’, and just to be a bit more sceptical about things”.

Terms like ‘big data’ can be thrown around to sound impressive without meaning much, and Pullinger is determined that civil servants who need to act on results of such data analysis should know the value of evidence and that politicians should respect the need for an evidence base.

He says: “What we have done in statistics over the past 10 years is progressively make it unacceptable for people to either not use evidence at all, or to misuse it. Interventions by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority and head of the Office of National Statistics’ regulation team have made make people think twice about using numbers in ways that they shouldn’t.”

Those caught out have included Dominic Raab, when he was housing minister, and even prime minister Theresa May, although Pullinger says both were “very gracious about it”.

The government analysis community is, he says, well spread both geographically and across departments. Successful recruitment, in particular by HMRC, in Manchester and Liverpool has shown “they can build a strong analysis community in north west England with colleagues who are already there, like the HSE,” Mr Pullinger says: “You get a community of people who build good careers in analysis in that part of the country.”

He says that while the civil service may not be able to compete on salary for some of these professions, it wins on the interesting nature of the problems it can give people to handle.

“We can compete on interest with the best of the private sector,” Pullinger says.

“To be working on problems like how do we understand trade as it flows across the Northern Irish border, or how do we make sense of the immigration arrangements needed after Brexit, these are interesting and difficult problems and people come to do those jobs because they are fascinated by them.”

When the government published a strategy for the function it said it would become “the go-to hub for best practice research and analysis services within government”, with a mission to “support everyone in government to make better decisions so that policy and operations deliver value for money and improve the lives of the people of the UK”.

This emphasis on evidence has won at least cautious approval from those who have long argued for this approach to policy making and problem solving.

Tracey Brown is director of Sense about Science, a campaign group that works to root out claims “based on poor or misrepresented evidence”. “There is a lot of talk – and there should be more – about what a joined up analysis service looks like inside government,” she says.

Brown praises the move towards better communication, stronger professional development, and the adoption of new ways to equip the civil service to respond more uniformly to data and research. But she sites two more reasons why the development of a cross-government service is positive and should be promoted more widely

Firstly, she says, it enables a more ambitious strategy for communicating analysis. “If you’re looking holistically at the question to answer, then you’re also able to look holistically at the answers people everywhere are getting. How is job security changing in the UK today? Is this region a healthy place to live? Are small businesses still able to get bridging finance? What risks are associated with imported foods? Instead of these answers being the sum of assorted parts, analysts can start to look at whether that sum includes all the right parts, drawing on a range of analysis.”

Secondly, she says, the idea of an analysis function, though it may capture many distinct professions, is much clearer for the public to understand. “Government is already enough of a mystery – you can imagine people’s bemusement when I try to explain analysts, researchers, scientists and statisticians,” she says.

“This might not have mattered that much previously. It matters now. When information and the evidence foundations for decisions are as contested as they currently are, people across the UK have good reason to take more interest in who produces what, and to what professional standard.

“Ultimately those standards, processes and functions are part of our public goods, and we should be talking about them publicly."