11 OCTOBER 2002

 –– Report by Ian Maclean –– 

This was a far more effective day than last year; instead of a very wide-ranging and therefore a superficial review, the breakout sessions provided the opportunity for informed discussion. The emphasis was very much on User consultation, but it is obvious that the ONS is still largely in reactive mode, expecting Users to make the running.
There seems to be a change for the better with regard to consultation on the Plan; instead of just being asked for comments for a high level draft plan, there is a schedule of reviews on each theme. It is not perfect, but it is a start. The outline presented at one of the sessions for the NS quality review programme was:

Linked to NS themes
Rolling 5 year programme
Scope of reviews – strategic; fundamental; standard; targeted Management of reviews to involve
– Transparent process
– Identify key stakeholders
– Involve independent external participation 
– Produce formal published report.

Contribution to discussion
The White Paper and Framework Document set out the inspiring prospect of an actively-participating democracy, where national statistics are 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. Both Len and the Minister have recognised the shift from 'Official' to 'National' Statistics; all we need to do now is to put the principles into practice. The magnitude of the change however 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, the main vehicle for translating principles into practice is the NS Annual Plan. This plan is required to take into account the needs of users. It is presented to the Statistics Commission who, in turn, are required to review it taking into account the extent to which it has met user needs.

In practice, user consultation has been largely a non-event from both parties. I have written an article for the BSUG News (Issue 19) outlining the Commission’s shortcomings. Today we have the opportunity of examining the extent to which the ONS have fulfilled their role. The name of the game is no longer making the best of the current statistics, but the development of an entirely new strategy. The ONS is much in the same position as British business in the 1950s requiring a change from production orientation to market orientation, which starts with the basic question, ‘what market are we in?’ Historically the market for Official Statistics was serving the needs of Government, any use that business or the public could make of them was incidental. Under the Ministerial Directive the market for National Statistics has been widened to include business and the public. This is a major cultural change and, as with all culture changes, requires enormous effort to make effective. The evidence of the last two years is that the old Official Statistics culture still prevails. The requirement is far more than just better dissemination of the existing statistical output, valuable as that is, and it is a major component of any user market strategy. What is needed is indepth research on the way Official Statistics are currently used and the gaps. This research starts with identifying the user community by market segment, then looks behind the statistics at the decisions that are being made or could be made in each segment. In business, research and development, capital investment, employment and marketing. For the public, evaluating the Government's performance on education, health, transport, criminal justice etc, participation in debates in issues arising from these policies as well as other issues of public concern. The academic community is the third major market segment, with its own requirements for National Statistics.

Goodwill is not in short supply on both sides, but a much more formal structure needs to be developed. Putting the draft annual plan on the web and asking for comments is only one very small part of the marketing plan that the ONS needs to develop to ensure the transition from Official to National Statistics. The Code of Practice states the requirements perfectly (page 13). All that is needed is an action plan!