By Winnie Agbonlahor

21 Jul 2014

John Pullinger has this month started his new job as the UK’s new national statistician. He tells Winnie Agbonlahor about his priorities in the role.

The word statistics stems from the Latin noun ‘status’, meaning position, condition or status; the Latin also forms the basis of the word ‘state’, or nation. Therefore, as the UK’s new national statistician John Pullinger explains, the “natural meaning of the word statistics is: ‘The information you need for a state to function’.” This broader meaning of the word helps to explain the core role of the country’s chief statistician, as Pullinger sees it: “To help manage the nation and help Britain make better decisions”.

Pullinger is taking over from Jil Matheson, who left in June. His background is stats all the way: having joined government in the statistics Fast Stream programme, he held statistical roles in various departments before becoming project manager for the creation of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and policy lead on development of the Government Statistical Service (GSS) in 1992. On his appointment as chief statistician and chief executive of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) this May, Pullinger said he wants to take “the work of the [UKSA] to a new level”. 

What does he mean? The authority, he replies, has done well in establishing itself since its formation in 2008, particularly in “calling attention to the way statistics are used poorly”. To take things to the next level, his aim is to give every statistician the confidence to stand up to ministers and officials if they detect misuse of statistics. Particularly in the run-up the 2015 general election, he says, “policymakers are going to be asking [statisticians] quite searching questions: ‘Can I say this? It would be really helpful to say that!’.” This, he adds, will make the work of a statistician a “tough job”.

Generally, he says, he wants to “be much more active in bringing statistics to the decision-making table”. Asked whether he thinks that statistics aren’t currently deployed enough in the policymaking process, he gives a cautious response: “I'm anxious not to jump to too many conclusions before I start. I think there are some excellent examples where it's done very well. I'm only saying statistics has the ability to help decision-makers make much better decisions.”

Pullinger is keen to emphasise that a statistician’s job goes beyond safeguarding and promoting the correct use of statistics. Any member of the profession, he says, “hasn’t completed their task until they’ve given a fair description of what’s actually going on”. If, for instance, a statistician is asked to report on certain targets and the core finding is that these targets have been hit, the statistician must also report any unintended consequences brought about by what would otherwise be a success story. It is a statistician’s “job to ensure there is a full picture”, and the UKSA’s responsibility to oversee this, he explains.

For his five-year appointment, Pullinger has set himself three priorities: the first, he says, is to “make sure our understanding of the economy is good enough; the second one is ensuring we understand as much about the population as we need to”, and the third is about “improving the capability of the system to do the [first] two”. 

The top priority around capability, he adds, lies in technology and digital skills: improving the ability to communicate data and make it more accessible. He points to the ONS website, which he says is “generally recognised” as having room for improvement. The other core element of improving statisticians’ skills is around their ability to engage with the policy profession. And the “flipside of that”, he says, is that his team might eventually help to equip policy professionals with basic statistical skills. 

Speaking to CSW before her departure, Matheson noted that there are “few senior posts for statisticians”. Asked what he can do to help statisticians to get to the top, Pullinger gives an optimistic view: “If we invest in the kind of skills that go beyond our statistical profession: policy-related, communication and digital skills”, then a statistician can “compete for anything”. They often have “very good management skills, because a lot of statistical activities are big operational tasks.” 

In everything he does in his new role – whether it’s upping skills levels, or giving statisticians the confidence to stand up for the correct use of statistics – Pullinger says that his over-riding aim will always be to help the government make better decisions. When Winston Churchill was faced with competing arguments based on different sets of information in 1941, Pullinger recalls, he didn’t have the luxury of such help. So Churchill pleaded: “‘Can someone create a body of information that can be accepted and used without question?’”. Pullinger says the Churchill quote is “as apt for our times now as it was back then”, adding: “With information coming from all quarters, how do we judge which is the most salient to the question? I think that’s the heart of what the GSS should be about: answering that Winston Churchill question”. 


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