Why better statistics make for better decisions

Opinion: Robust statistical analysis has to go hand-in-hand with clear communication, says Jonathan Athow of the Office for National Statistics (ONS)

By Jonathan Athow

11 Aug 2015

Good quality statistics are vital for good decision making, something that has been recognised in the UK’s Better Statistics, Better Decisions strategy. Policy makers, businesses and individuals all make decisions – or are affected by decisions – based on the information from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This places a responsibility on the ONS not only to be accurate, but to make sure the statistics we produce are relevant to today’s world.

Before joining the ONS, I spent time working at the Treasury and HM Revenue and Customs, where I was often a consumer of statistics from the ONS and elsewhere. I am now a producer of those stats for a large number of customers inside and outside government. I joined the ONS in June as part of a restructured leadership team led by the national statistician, John Pullinger, who is now supported by three deputy national statisticians. As deputy national statistician for economic statistics, my responsibilities include economic growth, inflation, unemployment and the balance of payments. Working alongside me are two other deputy national statisticians, one responsible for population and public policy statistics, the other for data capability.

Increasingly, our role goes beyond simply publishing statistics. As the people working with the detailed data, we often have insights into the key economic issues of the day, and so we are trying to make sure we use our knowledge to contribute to the debate. For example, we have recently introduced an Economic Forum, a quarterly event bringing together business economists, government officials, academics and the media to discuss issues relating to the measurement of the economy. Related to this is something we call the “curiosity agenda”. The idea here is to encourage ONS staff to ask more questions of their data. This not only helps ensure we are on top of quality assurance, but also helps us to be more proactive. All of this work is designed to achieve our aim of making the ONS a more outward facing and engaged organisation.

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The changes taking place at the ONS not only affect how we engage with others on the statistical outputs we produce, but also the way those statistics are produced. We are seeing new sources of data become available to us, including price information “scraped” from the internet. In addition, the ability to use administrative data from government departments will allow us to reduce the number of surveys we undertake and to be more timely in producing our statistics.

As an economist by background, I am excited by data and analysis. I have seen how good statistical analysis can support policymakers and those running large organisations, so working at the ONS is a great opportunity. But I am also passionate about good communication. We can produce the best statistics in the world, but the country will not get the best value from them unless they are well communicated. 

And my role as deputy national statistician for economic statistics is wider than simply the ONS. A number of government departments publish Official Statistics - for example, my old department HMRC publishes around 100 statistical releases a year. Making sure that this wider government statistical community keeps meeting user needs is also hugely important.

I have been impressed by the dedication of the people here at the ONS. We know that we face a number of challenges – the demand for our work is likely to increase, and people rightly want high quality statistics produced in a timely fashion. There is a lot to be done to ensure we are consistently meeting the vision set out in Better Statistics, Better Decisions, but there are also some considerable strengths on which we can build.

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