E D I T O R I A L
Annus miserabile for NS
It is fashionable in the printed media to devote
space to reviewing a bygone year; 2002 has been a bed of nails rather than roses
for National Statistics and its leader, Len Cook, the self-styled "most
abused civil servant". No fewer than six instances of 'faults' have been
spot-lighted. In February there was a £104 billion error in the value of
pension funds. In June there emerged a difference of treatment of Network Rail
as between ONS (private sector) and the NAO (public sector). In October the
publication of the 2001 population Census raised eyebrows and questions with an
apparent 'missing' million people and a number of local authorities appealing
for re-examination. In the same month there was a £43 million double-count of
pension contributions (and this one is still the subject of further doubts in
2003). In December some regional GDP figures were withdrawn and errors were
discovered in the National Travel Survey. Despite all this, Len's contract, due
to end in May, has been extended for a further three years to the end of 2005.
readers may find perusal of Len's upbeat self-evaluation of his first two years in post (Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol.166, Part 1, 2003) a good antidote. He refers to the above-mentioned pensions error "which haunted our public image for the whole year. This is still with us and tends to reinforce a long history of partly informed but zealous negativism about statistics that we provide in the UK."
One could speculate on whether there is an underlying common cause or thread running through such a succession of mishaps. Restructuring, introduction of quality assurance, expansion of methodological resources, extensive reviews of each activity area, creation of theme work plans with opportunities for user consultation, and the publication of a Code of Practice with its trickle of protocols, are among the major developments since the appointment of the National Statistician. From which one would expect nothing but improvement and progress towards ever-greater excellence to result. Just bad luck, human error (we can all empathise with that) or something more insidious?