In one part of the town there are appetites without food, in another food without appetites – Professor Arnold Toynbee’s opening to his book The Acquisitive Society, written some 80 years ago. Now when we are involved with The Inquisitive Society (a market-oriented democracy in which information plays a crucial role in decision making) we could rephrase the opening. In one part of the town there is an organisation (the Statistics Commission) with a mandate to bring official statistics to the people but no clear idea of how to set about it, while in another part there are ‘user groups’ who know what should be done but lack the resources.

The White Paper and Framework Document set out the inspiring prospect of an actively participating democracy, where national statistics were to be regarded as part of the infrastructure of that democracy, providing both a window on the work of government and the basis for informed debate on issues of public concern and business decisions. The magnitude of this change should not be under-estimated as it requires a change in the culture of the official statistics service, a change from just meeting the needs of government to a national statistical service that meets the needs of the public and business. The principal actor is the National Statistician, but the Statistics Commission has the crucial role of ensuring that the transition from official to national statistics is made effective.

Illustration reproduced by kind permission of Richard Duckett

The Statistics Commission published its second Annual Report last July, confirming the impression that it is still very much feeling its way forward without any clear idea either of where it is going or how to get there. The Commission started with a clean sheet. There were no precedents within the UK, although in almost all developed countries there is an equivalent body, albeit with varying responsibilities and powers. No effort was made in the first two years to learn from the experience of other countries. Rather, the decision was made to go it alone and see what happened through a series of random ad hoc initiatives – earth-shattering subjects such as a scoping study on seasonal adjustment. Given the current budget of the Commission, it would take some 200 years to work through the basic outputs from the government statistical services, so obviously the audit approach has its limitations! Quite
apart from the fact that attempting to teach the National Statistician to suck eggs through setting oneself up as the quality assurance overseer is likely to create friction.

The Annual Report has no clear statement of objectives and gives no indication that there is any rational planning process in place, just a series of loose statements. “Our work programme assembles evidence on specific points to support our policy” from randomly selected topics (my words!), and “we nurture and build on our relationships with users”. This user relationship is, in fact, little more than quarterly two-hour-long lunchtime meetings between the User Group Chairs and members of the Commission. Enjoyable as these meetings are, they cannot be construed as fulfilling the requirement placed on the Commission in the White Paper of ‘setting up a mechanism’ for identifying and evaluating the needs of users. 

To develop a coherent plan, especially for a new organisation, intelligence gathering based on in-depth research is crucial. Research into: 

  • The nature of the user community – how are users defined, how can they be grouped, what are their characteristics, what are the proxies for the general public? How can the experience of the user groups best be harnessed to assist the Commission to fulfil its role? 
  • The scope of national statistics – is the listing given in the Ministerial Directive just the starting point? How should we deal with statistics from other organisations that are relevant to public decision-making, in particular those from the regulatory authorities (such as OFRAIL) and the self-regulating professions, especially medicine? 
  • The use made of official statistics, with particular relevance to the decisions to which they are applied and the suitability of those statistics for that purpose. This research should be extended into the decision-making process to identify the gaps – areas where official statistics could be an important element of decision making. 
  • The National Statistics Annual Plan is one of the key areas for the attention of the Commission. It is the National Statistician’s responsibility to engage with users in formulating the plan, but it is very much the Commission’s role to determine whether or not that consultation has been effective. A straw poll is no substitute for professionally conducted research. Quantified data is a far more effective argument than random individual comments made around a lunch table. 
  • Raising the profile of the Statistics Commission. At the present moment the Commission is virtually unknown, but if it is to fulfil its role it needs to make an impact on the public. Occasional press release handouts are not enough. The full range of media communications needs to be reviewed, especially the use of proper press briefings and seminars to highlight key issues. 

The Commission’s budget is far too small to fund an independent internal system for identifying and evaluating ‘public issues’ that are inadequately covered by National Statistics, but for far less than the underspend on the budget in the last two years the Commission could set up the machinery to tap into the experience of expert users, experience which covers virtually all these – hospital waiting lists, unemployment, asylum seekers, pensions, Enron-style national accounts… The organisations represented by the Statistics Users’ Council and its Groups cover over two hundred thousand firms and twenty million people. Not a bad start! The Commission is taking tentative steps to get closer to expert users, and if it fully exploits their expertise the illustration to our review of their third Annual Report will feature a Chippendale chair.