'Essential' that government statisticians can raise concerns about misleading data, stats society says

RSS survey highlights heavy workloads during the pandemic, as well as concerns among some about raising issues

It is “essential” that government statisticians feel able to raise issues in their departments, the head of the Royal Statistical Society has said, after one in five members said in a poll that they did not feel able to do so.

In a survey examining the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on statisticians and data scientists in the public sector, 80% said they felt “able to raise any statistical issues (or concerns with how statistics are used) within [their] department”. Of the 151 statisticians surveyed by the RSS, 21% strongly agreed with the statement, and 18% agreed somewhat.

It is “essential that statisticians feel free to raise issues within their departments when they feel data is being used incorrectly or misleadingly”, RSS chief executive Stian Westlake said.

He praised the Office for Statistics Regulation for “calling out producers when their statistics and the communication around them are not of the quality they should be”.

The OSR has written to departments on several occasions to correct misleading uses of statistics. And last October, the stats regulator urged top officials to help increase transparency around the use of stats, address data gaps and promote a “culture which values good use of data and independent statistical input”, after identifying lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Westlake added: “I would like to see all statisticians comfortable in raising issues so they can be addressed prior to publication.”

Government statisticians have taken a more prominent position in the public eye over the last two years, with close attention paid to stats on Covid infections and testing in particular.

The survey showed the pandemic had impacted statisticians in different ways, with some reporting a higher workload and others seeing an improvement in their work-life balance.

More than half of those surveyed – 56% – reported working longer hours than normal for sustained periods since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Nearly one in five – 18% – strongly agreed with the statement.

The figures suggest the pandemic is having an ongoing impact on workload, with 47% saying their volume of work is still higher than it was before the pandemic.

Respondents were broadly positive about the support they had received, with 90% saying they felt supported by their line manager, and 74% saying there was good communication in their organisation between statisticians and non-statisticians. However, that left 26% who did not feel positive about communication.

Commenting on the results, Westlake said: “Our survey shows that statisticians and data scientists in the public sector have been working tirelessly over the past two years to collect and analyse information to inform decision-makers, researchers and the general public. With such a demand for data we hope our findings highlight to government the essential role statisticians play in our society.”

The findings will be used to draw attention to the work that statisticians and data scientists have been doing, as well as potentially informing discussions with the leadership of the Government Statistical Service. It follows the Society’s “Statistics are Vital” campaign, which highlights the key role played by statisticians during the pandemic.

RSS invites award entries

The results of the survey come as the RSS welcomes entries for its 2022 Award for Statistical Excellence in Trustworthiness, Quality and Value, which recognises excellence in the voluntary application of the the three “pillars” of the Office for Statistics Regulation’s code of practice.

The award, in partnership with the Office for Statistics Regulation and Civil Service World, is now in its third year and recognises organisations that have voluntarily adopted the OSR’s code.

Last year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory team took home the title for its Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors for Company Reporting project, which helps organisations calculate their greenhouse gas emissions.

The RSS described the initiative as a “fantastic collaboration that was radical, innovative and created a valuable tool to help government and businesses calculate their carbon emissions from use of fuel, water and waste generation”.

UK Statistics Authority director general for regulation Ed Humpherson said: “‘I am really excited that the award is in its third year, as so far we have seen some excellent finalists gain well-deserved recognition for their brilliant work.

“I look forward to receiving entries from a wide range of organisations who are applying the principles of the code to demonstrate trustworthiness, quality and value for their users.”

Entries close on 29 April.

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