The Office for National Statistics needs to increase its London presence, bolster its existing operations in Newport with a new data-science centre, and undergo a “culture change” to equip it for the digital economy, according to a new report.
Former Bank of England deputy governor Sir Charlie Bean’s (pictured) recommendations come ten years after the ONS opted to move most of its functions in London to south Wales, a decision that prompted 90% of its 1,000 staff in the capital to leave the organisation.
Sir Charlie’s Independent Review of UK Economic Statistics was commissioned by Chancellor George Osborne in July and tasked with assessing the nation’s statistical needs, as well as the challenges in meeting them.
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The full report – which follows interim recommendations in December – highlights a need for the ONS to become a more user-focused and collaborative organisation. It also includes data that suggests statistical capacity is growing faster in the wider civil service than it is in the ONS
Sir Charlie does not call for the reversal of the Newport move, but blames it for a decrease in the quality of the ONS’s work, with a particular shortage of experience in the National Accounts coordination role. He suggests that the organisation should “increase its London profile” to facilitate stronger engagement with users of economic statistics.
He said: “One legacy of this move is a lack of facilities in London, where a number of key users are located.
“An increased presence in London would help to strengthen links between ONS, HM Treasury, the Bank of England and many private-sector users. It would also facilitate staff interchanges and secondments.”
Sir Charlie's proposed science data hub would be created at Newport and "serve as a focal point for the development of data science and data analysis techniques", bringing together both academic and private-sector collaborators, charged with using scientific techniques to produce economic data.
The hub would draw on the hoard of administrative data which already exists in the public sector and which ministers believe has the potential to improve economic statistics. The government last month launched a consultation on proposals that would increase ONS access to data for statistics, a move endorsed by the report.
Sir Charlie’s call for culture change towards a more service-oriented ONS would require staff to become “more curious” about what was driving changes in the nation's economy, helping to answer data-users' queries.
“Staff need to be encouraged to identify ways to improve the production of their statistics, with ideas bubbling up from below,” he said. “Management needs to take active steps to embed such a culture within the DNA of the organisation.”
Sir Charlie’s report also shines a light on the changing nature of the civil service’s employment of statisticians. It says that over the past 20 years the number of economists and statisticians across the civil service has increased by around 150%, from 595 to 1535. Over the same period, the ONS’s headcount of statisticians increased by 20%, from 172 to 210.
“ONS will also need to have greater depth in several more specialised roles,” Sir Charlie said. “There are a range of analytical professions in the civil service, including economics, statistics and social research, as well as increasingly important new disciplines such as data science.
“The scale of change required will no doubt also call for effective project management and digital skills too.”