The decision to move the Office for National Statistics (ONS) outside of London – resulting in the loss of 90% of its London-based staff – had a detrimental effect on the quality of its work, an independent review of the statistics authority has said.
Former Bank of England deputy governor Sir Charlie Bean has been asked by the government to look at the quality of UK economic statistics, and his interim report has been published this week.
Following an earlier review in the mid-2000s, the ONS – which produces most of the UK’s official economic statistics – opted to move most of its functions outside of the capital, instead focusing its work in Newport and Titchfield.
The report says that 90% of ONS staff were “unwilling to move and instead left the organisation”, with just 101 of 1,000 employees – including seven senior civil servants – choosing to relocate. It notes that this is “a far higher proportion than might be expected to depart under normal circumstances”.
It adds: “The resultant loss of expertise is widely believed to have had a significant adverse impact on the subsequent production and development of UK economic statistics and the National Accounts in particular.”
While the report recommends that the ONS continues to build up capability in Newport, it calls on the authority to also “increase its London profile in order to facilitate stronger engagement with users of economic statistics”, and says the ONS should look at “expanding its engagement with users across the rest of the UK”.
“National accounts skills are highly specialised and, to a large degree, acquired on the job,” the report says. “It was unrealistic to expect that the loss of knowledge and experience could be replaced overnight.
“However, new recruits and less experienced staff will over time acquire the required skills and expertise. Having now brought the production of economic statistics together in Newport and begun to develop skills and experience there, it would make little sense to contemplate reversing the original move, as that would just be likely to create new transitional costs with the loss of staff who do not wish to relocate to London.”
Sir Charlie’s report also says current IT systems used by the ONS are “poorly interconnected”, with the authority using “hundreds of applications, on 25 different platforms”.
“Many of these are outdated or bespoke and costly to maintain,” it says. “This complexity of the technology estate has impeded improvements to the core statistical and analytical functions.”
The ONS has already begun work on a plan to overhaul its technology and bring it more into line with standards set out by the central Government Digital Service. While that progress is welcomed, the report says the ONS “must avoid repeating past mistakes” that have led to errors in data.
“The pace of transformation ONS can achieve will partly depend on the resources made available to the programme,” the report says. “However, success will come from steady, incremental progress, within ONS’s capability to deliver. ONS should also continue to work closely with GDS to ensure it draws on cross-departmental best practice.”
And the report calls on ONS leaders to do more to encourage staff to become “proactive rather than reactive” in their dealings with the government agencies and businesses who make use of economic statistics, saying statisticians need to be “curious, open and self-critical”.
“Keeping economic statistics relevant to users in both public and private sectors means that ONS, and other producers of economic statistics, need to move away from focusing largely on the production of statistics and become rather more of a service provider, helping users answer their questions about the economy,” the report says.
“Moreover, by virtue of its access to the raw data, ONS should be in a position to be in the lead in understanding and explaining the limitations of the statistics it produces and in developing alternative indicators when required.”
Responding to the interim report’s recommendations, Jonathan Athow, the ONS’s director general for economic statistics, said: “ONS plans to develop the long-term capacity of the Newport office, working with others in the region to create a hub for data professionals, building on its role as the home of economic statistics.
“ONS will also strengthen its London presence to increase its analytical capability and engagement with key users.”