Interview: deputy national statistician on legacy tech, lockdowns and a ‘leap forward’ for government’s use of data

Alison Pritchard on plans for the 2021 census, ensuring public trust in statistics – and her next epic boat journey

Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

By Sam Trendall

11 Mar 2021

You may have noticed that statistics are having a bit of a moment.

Many of us have spent unusually large chunks of the past year poring over statistical outputs including numbers of cases, R-rates, vaccine efficacy, and many more besides. We have watched daily as ministers, public health officials – and, yes, statisticians – have pointed to screens displaying graphs and numbers, intended to elucidate for us the parts of the story that words alone cannot.

And, just as some of us are beginning to cautiously contemplate a future where our lives are not dictated by the comparative grimness of the latest numbers, we are once again reminded of the foundational importance of statistics by the ad campaigns for the 2021 Census, which have recently begun to appear on screens nationwide.

Even outside the challenges of pandemic, the once-a-decade exercise in building a comprehensive picture of the population was this year intended to undergo a major shift as, for the first time, research is conducted primarily digital, with a target of gathering three quarters of responses online.

And more profound changes still could follow, according to Alison Pritchard, deputy national statistician and director general for data capability at the Office for National Statistics.

Speaking to PublicTechnology in late 2020, Pritchard says that new sources of information and the new analytical approaches pioneered by the ONS Data Science Campus – which she earmarks as a “key focus” for the organisation – could mean that an exercise as labour-intensive as the census may no longer be required in the near future.

“We have done the census since 1801 and have the 2021 census coming up, but we also have the ability to work with data in such a way that we may not need to do another census,” she says. “And I think that journey through from historic approaches to statistics and analysis, right the way through to the latest data science means that we are probably one of only three national statistical offices that are able to bring that very forward-looking data science into the work that we do.”

  • 1801 Date of the first national census
  • 75% Target for online response in 2011
  • 63,182,000 UK population, as recorded by the last census on 27 March 2011

Having been a fixture of national life for over two centuries, PublicTechnology wonders whether this year's could really be the last census.

“That’s got to be the right question,” Pritchard says. “We are fully focused on doing a 2021 census to the full degree of quality – despite the challenges that are felt globally. But we are also thinking about, as we work with more administrative data and the work that we are doing on mobility and all those sort of things – including on the Data Science Campus – what is that relationship with the census in due course?”

On top of the work to deliver the decennial survey and its ongoing support for coronavirus response, the ONS is also to play a key role in supporting the rollout of the recently published National Data Strategy, as well as working closely with the Government Digital Service on the new Data Standards Authority that is based within the technology agency.

It is fair to say that Pritchard – who joined the ONS in October after a year as director general of GDS – arrived during a full-on time for the national statistics agency.

Prior to GDS, her 30-plus years in the civil service have added up to “a rather eclectic career”. This includes stints at HM Treasury, the Home Office, and the then Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as well as five years spent working in Saudi Arabia on a defence programme, and leading a 2005 independent government review into the taxpayer-funded air travel of the Royal Family and government ministers. 

Among this there is plenty that will help in the new gig, she says, not least in the recent work of the digital agency in building tools and platforms to support government’s pandemic response.

“In GDS, we had quite a strong focus on operational data,” she says. “And the work we were doing on things like the service for vulnerable people [to obtain support] had very tangible operational data aspects… I have come to ONS, where there is a bigger focus on analytical data to underpin big, big policy questions. But many of the issues surrounding the use and handling of operational data apply here – [such as] the culture, the legislative frameworks, the quality of data. So, I think I'm able to bring to bear experience from an operational perspective into the analytical environment.”

Pritchard says that “there are some priorities I set myself early on” in her new post, one of which is to continue progress on using the new types of data that are fuelling the work of the Data Science Campus. This includes further exploration of sources such as smartphone mobility data from Apple and Google, and anonymised aggregate banking data.

‘A leap forward’
Ensuring the successful delivery of the Integrated Data Programme, a five-year government-wide scheme to improve collaboration between departments, is another priority.

The programme, which was unveiled in the National Data Strategy, will include the construction of a new platform to support agencies in sharing, accessing and analysing data.

“It will be a digital collaborative environment that will support government to unlock the potential of linked data and build up data standards, tools and approaches enabling policymakers to draw on the most up-to-date evidence and analysis to support policy development, improving public services and improving people’s lives,” the strategy says.

Pritchard explains that the platform will supersede the existing Secure Research Service (SRS), which allows 4,000 accredited researchers to access and analyse more than 80 data sets drawn from the ONS and across government. The service is a “quite a tight, closed environment – using yesterday’s and today's technology, rather than being fully cloud-based”, according to the deputy national statistician. 

Updating this infrastructure is one of three ways in which the Integrated Data Programme represents “a leap forward”, she adds.

In an environment where we are aggressively using data to support better outcomes and effective services, we need to have an ongoing discourse to really explain the benefits

“Second is the progressive policies that will allow the data to be used and exploited in the fullest way possible – within the legal and [other] appropriate constraints,” Pritchard says. “And third is [allowing] a critical mass of access to government-linked data. And, therefore, when you bring those things together, you create an environment where analysis can be undertaken across government, on data that, in reality, is held in situ. So, this is moving away from the world of creating data lakes – to some extent, the SRS is a place where we hold data. The Integrated Data Platform will be cloud-based instances that access data in situ – where data providers currently hold their data.”

The various strands of the public sector – including the health service, local government and the criminal-justice system – are “becoming much sophisticated in joining up their data”.

“But, let's face it, this remains a really challenging environment,” she adds. “I want to make sure that we're part of that glue that allows the different sectoral data sets to operate with each other.”

The ultimate vision is “friction-free access to government data”.

The implementation of flexible, cloud-based infrastructure to support the IDP speaks to another of the initial priorities identified by Pritchard upon assuming her role: to address “technical debt” across the ONS by reducing the use of outdated legacy technology.

Asked how big a problem this currently represents, Pritchard says: “We are still in the process of moving fully cloud. And we've got a number of systems – particularly those that have been related to statistical production for a number of years – which are more on-prem-focused, and they are based on tools that we've operated for a number of years.”

She adds: “I would say that everything gets produced on time – that's important to us. But I'm certainly noticing opportunities for the kind of innovation and transformation that we want to do that will inevitably get impacted by older technology.”

As it works to make good on these opportunities – including the digitisation of the census, and a long-term transformation programme to improve the quality of economic statistics – Pritchard says the need for upgrading tech infrastructure means that the ONS must “be prepared to relay some of the road at the same time”.

“And, therefore, we have to disrupt – in a good way - the business to be able to make those changes,” she adds. 

Desert island statistics
Disruption has, of course, been the leitmotif of life around the world in the last 12 months. 

Asked about her experience of working from home, when Pritchard says that “sometimes I feel like I am stuck on island”, it is with a wry wit befitting someone with a sideline as a performer and producer of award-winning comedy. (Something she has previously described as a “hobby that got out of hand”.)

Pritchard lives on a small island in the Thames; PublicTechnology catches a glimpse of the river and a passing rower when Pritchard switches off the ONS-branded backdrop to our video interview. 

Pritchard, who admits to being someone who “occasionally has a low boredom threshold”, has helped fill time over the last year by mastering the drums.

And, having once sailed from Australia to Africa and canoed from her old Defra office in Westminster to her west London home – which took 12 hours, rather than the anticipated three – Pritchard is already considering her “next adventure”: kayaking from ONS headquarters in Newport to its satellite offices in, first, London, then Hampshire.

“My plan would be to try and work en route,” she says. “I might kayak by evening, and then work during the day and roam between the offices to show the ability to work from anywhere. That would be the plan.”

It is a plan that must first undergo rigorous risk assessment – and that may have been hatched, Pritchard admits, as “a consequence of being stuck on an island for six months” – but it is now also, she adds, on the record.

“I think I’d better start planning…”

PublicTechnology’s conversation with the deputy national statistician took place on the cusp of the publication of the government’s Data Quality Framework, which sets out a range of considerations and practical measures to improve the quality of information available for use by policy and delivery professionals across the public sector.

The document begins by setting out five principles with which, it says, all civil servants should familiarise themselves: commit to data quality; know your users and their needs; assess quality throughout the data lifecycle; communicate data quality clearly and effectively; and anticipate changes affecting data quality.

The framework goes on to provide guidance and action plans to help users assess and improve the quality of data.

Pritchard says that “quality and availability” is the first of a five-part “taxonomy” of the key challenges in the public sector’s use of data, with the other being: standards; ethics and public trust; capability and leadership; and accountability.

“On the quality front, this [is about] really getting a culture of using data right through the organisation, from start to finish, [and] avoiding having to fix some of the data challenges we have at the end of the process,” she adds. “It’s like in the film world when they say ‘we will fix it in post’; we do quite a lot of work around managing poor quality data through some clever techniques, including machine-learning matching and other stuff that we have to do. [The framework] goes back to the beginning and says, actually, let’s embed data thinking right through your organisation.”

The police are cited as an example of an organisation that is tackling this issue head on, “recognising that some forces have a better approach to what is a very data-driven operation, and recognising the need to assess maturity, and to seek to progress it by [focusing on] processes, people, the data itself, and technology”.

“The framework will do two things,” Pritchard adds. “It's guidance initially, but I think we'll move on quite quickly to a maturity matrix approach, where we can start to tease out where different bits of government are on their journey to improving quality of data as part of an underpinning culture.”

Inclusion and diversity
In the same month as Pritchard joined the ONS, its parent agency, the UK Statistics Authority, established its Inclusive Data Taskforce. Its nine members are tasked with “providing recommendations on improving the UK’s inclusive data holdings and infrastructure”.

Their work will also be supported by an ONS-led review of the current state of inclusiveness of data and evidence; this process began in January and concludes later this month. The ultimate aim of these initiatives, according to the UKSA, is to ensure “that our statistics reflect the experiences of everyone in our society”.

Pritchard says the ONS has identified ‘inclusive’ – alongside ‘radical’, ‘ambitious’, and ‘sustainable’ – as one of the four foundational elements on which to build its future statistical approaches.

“And there's a consideration that the way we go about using data – which underpins an awful lot of key policy decisions – needs to reflect the diverse nature of society,” she adds. “But, more importantly, our ways of collection and analytical analysis of data also needs to reflect the diversity of those that we are supporting. The taskforce will be looking at a whole series of different considerations on our approaches to methodology, and how should we approach both surveys and other analytical approaches.”

Their work takes place against a backdrop of growing awareness – and, in some cases, unease or even anger – concerning the use of data. 

PublicTechnology wonders whether public trust has become an issue that needs to be addressed.

I'm certainly noticing opportunities for the kind of innovation and transformation that we want to do that will inevitably get impacted by older technology

“There is certainly more scrutiny at the moment,” Pritchard responds. “And there is certainly a lot of exposure to a lot of data at the moment – as we're seeing dashboards, day in and day out, in the public eye. We've already got the systems to address questions of quality... we have the Office of Statistics Regulation that is independent, and sits alongside us, the executive body of the UK Statistics Authority. We've got an incredible amount of checks and balances in place to be able to ensure that we get the quality and other factors right. 

She adds: “But that's a slightly different aspect to how the public feel about the use of data, and I think there's a broad range of things to consider in this space. In an environment where we are aggressively using data to support better outcomes and effective services, we need to have an ongoing discourse to really explain the benefits of the services we provide in and utilising data most effectively. But, on the other hand, I think it's relatively straightforward to demonstrate the protections that we have in place, which are which are robust and are rigorous. I think we have to find that balance of explaining the checks are in place, and also the incredible benefits.”

The need to ensure the public remains informed and supportive has been evidenced by the work of the last year, according to Pritchard.

“If you look at something like the response to Covid, so much of what we do requires us to operate with data at an aggregate level,” she says. “It's vital for us to be able to generate a national response.”

Perhaps it is just as well that – whether with horror, resignation, relief, grim fascination, or cautious optimism – we are now a nation that has got very used to responding to statistics.

Alison Pritchard government CV

Year in which Alison Pritchard began her civil service career

MoD, Treasury, Cabinet Office, Home Office, DCMS, Defra, GDS
Government employers before joining ONS

12 hours
Length of time it took her to canoe from Defra’s Westminster HQ to her west London island home

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this article first appeared.

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