‘The opportunity to have organisations of all types publishing data to common standards is really exciting’: why stats regulators' new award matters

The first ever award to recognise the voluntary application of the Office for Statistics Regulation code has been awarded jointly to MHCLG and the Scottish Fiscal Commission, with UCAS named highly commended.
Ed Humpherson and Penny Babb

By Richard Johnstone

21 Oct 2020


The Royal Statistical Society and the Office for Statistics Regulation have just announced the first-ever winners of the Voluntary Application of the Code Award, which recognises organisations that adopt the three pillars of the OSR's code – trustworthiness, quality and value – in the production of stats that are not classified as official statistics. Organisations in and outside the public sector can adopt the code.

CSW, which is the media partner for the award, spoke to Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation, Office for Statistics Regulation, and Penny Babb, the head of policy and standards Office for Statistics Regulation, about why the award matters.

How many entries did you receive for the award?

Penny Babb: “We had 10 really good applications, and it was a mix of everybody that has signed up for voluntary adoption [of the code] so far: charities, government departments, arm’s-length bodies. It really was difficult to whittle it down. That's why we’ve got a joint winner and a runner up.”

Ed Humpherson: “Our commended runner up, UCAS, is a charity, not a government body. That's one of the things we think is very exciting – the opportunity to have organisations of all types publishing evidence, statistics, data to common standards, and not just have one set of rules for government or [none] for other organisations.

“What I think is interesting is in the last nine months we've encountered examples of organisations that we weren't aware of which have started to adopt the code on a voluntary basis. Or they come to us without any prior contact and say, 'We've done this, would you like to see what we've got on our website?’ I wouldn't exaggerate how much of a movement there is behind this, but it is not all relying on us doing direct outreach. There's a little bit of word of mouth as well.”

Penny Babb: “We actually had one entrant that we had not had direct contact with before the competition. We're seeing more organisations in which there are advocates that are already sharing across their organisation the benefits in applying the pillars [of trustworthiness, quality and value in the production of statistics]. And I think within the public bodies environment, it's actually quite wide ranging.”

Do you want more organisations to sign up to adopt the three pillars?

Ed Humpherson: “All the organisations that are adopted are doing it because they have a commitment to high standards of transparency. As more and more organisations want to signal to their users these high standards, I think it would be great if they said, 'The best way we can do that is to is to follow the principles of the code of practice'. We want the principles to sell themselves... and I think they do: trustworthiness quality and value."

Penny Babb: “The other side of it is we see that applying the pillars in your work is a powerful tool for analysts – that's its real benefit to the organisations. The more that the pillars are understood across the organisation, the more it is a common language as a way of challenging each other around ways of working. That will be of great benefit.

“The other part of it is around accountability. By having a public commitment to the standards, organisations are actually making themselves accountable to their users. That's really important, and it's allowing others to maybe take issue if there's any particular concern they may have around the information. It provides a useful platform for talking about the figures, and what they mean, and driving awareness and understanding both within the producers as well as with users."

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Scottish Fiscal Commission have been declared joint winners of the new award, while UCAS was highly commended. What made them stand out?

Ed Humpherson: “In all three cases it's how they're not just thinking of the code as not just something to comply with, but a way to really think about the users of the data they're publishing, and how they can support that user.

"And they do actually represent different classes. So MHCLG is an example of data collected within government, which would in the past have just been published as a spreadsheet or a set of data tables. It was collected for a very specific use related to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and MHCLG has sought to make this information as useful as possible by saying: 'We don't want to produce very detailed official statistics... but we do want to give people confidence, because this is so important and sensitive.' So that's an example from within government of something that in the past might have just been put out as numbers, where they have put context around the numbers.

“The Scottish Fiscal Commission case is more about the culture of the organisation representing a really independent perspective on fiscal matters in Scotland, not specific data. And then UCAS is an example of an organisation entirely outside government – a  charitable body which provided this public service of matching students to university place. For them to pick up the award, I think shows that you don't have to be a government body to make use of the code.”

Is the process of voluntary application the same for all the organisations that do it?

Ed Humpherson: "I'd say it's the same philosophy. So trustworthiness is about the processes that ensure the statistics are free from vested interest. Quality is about ensuring the data themselves a reasonable representation of what they're attempting to measure. And value is about what it is for, what’s the purpose of this information?"

Penny Babb: “One of the challenges that organisations face where they're looking to bring in awareness, understanding and acceptance of our framework, the three pillars, is raising awareness at the highest level and getting that buy in. So for the Scottish Fiscal Commission, it was embraced right from the outset. They saw as they created their organisation that this was an important framework that would help the deliver their analysis. For others, there are established organisations trying to bring in and raise awareness of the frameworks.”

Can organisations apply these pillars quickly?

Penny Babb: “Absolutely. The critical things is analysts and producer teams recognising how what they're already doing reflects the pillars. And as they become more familiar with what the pillars mean, it helps them see what more they can be doing, how else they could do different activities.

“That’s the ongoing benefit of this: seeing alternative way of doing the work that you do, how you're delivering it, the conversations that you have, how you can improve the information that you're gathering, and how you can better communicate it. All of that is an ongoing activity. It's not a one off, you have embrace it in the way that you work. That's something they can do immediately, and they can continue to apply and develop and improve."

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