Opinion: How the ONS is improving statistics to drive better policy

A reform plan for national statistics is intended to improve the evidence available to policymakers. Iain Bell, the deputy national statistician for population and public policy statistics at the UK Statistics Authority, sets out how civil servants can help make this a reality.


By Iain Bell

22 Sep 2017

We’re all taking decisions every day of the week at home or in work – some small decisions and some major decisions, but without the right information how well informed are these? This is true no matter who you are, from those making major policy decisions through to deciding where to live or which school to pick for your child.

The ONS is implementing a reform plan, its ‘Better Statistics, Better Decisions’  strategy, that is intended to ensure that statistics meet the need of policymakers across areas such as migration, crime and health.

To me it is vital that we succeed in achieving this. 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. So my task is threefold:


First, we need to ensure our statistics are available and accessible to all; as well as national and local decision-makers deciding on policies and running operations, we also need to reach citizens to enable informed choices on the decisions they face. For too long government statistics have been hard to find and, once found, difficult to understand. We need statistics that anyone can easily find and understand. That needs to start from the user’s perspective, not the view of the producers. This will often mean the producers of National Statistics need to come together to produce the outputs rather than the current fragmentation. We also need to use the right language and presentation which is trusted, authoritative yet easy to understand for all, not just the experts.

Second, we need to embrace data science and the data revolution and use the Digital Economy Act, which Heather Savory [deputy national statistician and director general, data capability at the UK Statistics Authority]is leading for us, to transform public policy statistics and ensure they reflect the modern society we live in.

Finally and most importantly, we need to support decision-makers. The strategy is Better Statistics, Better Decisions. Our insight, analysis and data will be vital to decision-makers and we need to make sure it is there in an easy-to-use form and that where extra analysis is required we area also able to provide it.

Hetan Shah set out in Civil Service World the need to embrace this agenda for migration statistics. It is challenge we need to rise to. Yesterday we welcomed more than 65 stakeholders, a rich combination of experts from government departments, academia and think tanks where I set out my vision for population and public policy statistics and we set out our plans to improve migration statistics with a rich debate on what is needed including a strong demand for data on illegal migration.

Today we are publishing this ambitious timetable to improve migration statistics which will ensure that in 2019 we have a richer set of statistics which provide insight not just on net migration flows but more detail on how long migrants have been here, which areas of the country they are in and whether they are students, working, or here for other reasons, and what this means for our society. Along the way we will publish insights from these data to ensure that the public and policy-makers have the best information we can provide as major decisions are taken in this important policy area.

But crucially we can’t do this alone, we will need to come together across government and beyond to ensure that the full range of information and data sources are available to inform everyone who wants to contribute to the debate.

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