In our latest blog, Regulator Nicky Pearce discusses our work on analytical leadership so far and the next steps.
Why are we looking into analytical leadership?
In OSR, we believe that strong analysis can inform decisions that help improve the lives of citizens. We saw first-hand how data and analysis entered the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic and the benefits that came from this, including cross-department collaboration, producing analysis quickly to respond to emerging issues and using analysis to inform a wide range of policy and operational decisions. We would like to see analysis stay in that spotlight by applying learning from these successes to other key societal issues, including, for example, on climate change, levelling up and increasing living costs.
I joined the OSR in February last year and soon after that I became part of the Analytical Leadership review team who are looking to explore ways in which analytical leadership might be strengthened across Government. Having previously worked on multiple different statistical outputs across the Office for National Statistics and the Office for Students, I was very interested to see how the OSR’s previous work on statistical leadership would extend to analytical leadership.
You may be asking yourself “But you regulate statistics, why are you looking at analysis?” This is a fair question and one that I asked myself when I first joined the team. The answer is quite simple. Although within government we differentiate between statistics, data and analysis, to the outside user there is often no difference. Statistics and analysis are intertwined; strong statistics support strong analysis and both require effective communication to support decision makers as well as the public. The standards for government statistics are set out in our Code of Practice for Statistics, and we believe that the pillars of the Code (Trustworthiness, Quality, and Value) can be applied more widely, helping to support analysis in the way that it’s produced, used and valued, and to realise wider benefits for the public. In addition, these principles are a helpful framework for analytical leaders to draw on.
What have we been up to?
Since we announced the launch of this work last May, we have reached out to people across Government and beyond in each of the four nations. To date, we have spoken to over 50 people across more than 30 government departments, including Directors, Heads of Profession, Economists, Social Researchers, and Policy colleagues. We have also spoken to several people outside of Government including academics. These conversations have centred around how analysis is produced, used and valued and it’s been fascinating to hear everyone’s views on this topic, especially where those views have challenged my own perception of what analysis in government looks like and the common barriers.
We would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to share their thoughts with us, they have been instrumental to shaping this work.
While it’s been great to hear so many diverse views, these conversations were not always without challenge. We very quickly realised that the language we were using around this work was very important, for example, people often had different interpretations of the term ‘analytical leadership’ and how it related to their work. Some people questioned our role in this area and others were concerned about how our work linked with other activities being carried out in this space, including work by the Government Analysis Function. However, through discussion, we have been able to provide assurance that we are looking to support and champion analytical work across Government: indeed, we hope to draw on and highlight the work of others to do this more effectively.
What are the emerging themes?
Four high-level themes have really stood out to us, and highlight the importance of:
Senior leadership and culture
Often, we think of leadership as being a top-down effect with senior leaders setting the standard, which is then followed by everyone else in their departments. Whilst it is true that senior leaders are incredibly important in setting the direction and the analytical culture of a department, the reality is much more complex than this. Firstly, senior analysts and senior non-analysts have separate roles to play in supporting a strong analysis culture. Secondly, good analytical leadership encompasses a wide range of things, including ensuring that analysts get a seat at the right tables and have channels to advocate their work. It also needs non-analysts at all levels, including ministers and permanent secretaries, to actively seek out analysis to inform new policy areas or key operational decisions from day one, and be as transparent as possible about the evidence that they are using.
Collaboration comes in many forms and occurs at all different levels, within and outside of government. We heard lots of great examples of analytical work that has been produced through strong collaboration and the benefits it can have. For example, four nations cross-working groups on particular topics which allow for information and best practice to be shared across the UK and for informed decisions to be made quickly when needed, especially during COVID-19. Other examples include collaboration with external research organisations such as Administrative Data Research UK, Research Development Scotland, and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods. We also heard about some of the barriers that people feel prevent more collaboration from occurring, including resource constraints. But crucially, that huge gains can be made if these are overcome, in terms of more efficient and effective policy and decision making, and new ground-breaking insights or innovations.
Capability and skills
To have good analysis it is important to get the right people with the right skills in the right job. To do this, it is key that analysts stay up to date with innovative technologies and have the time to develop new skills. It is also key that analysts can communicate the key messages of their work as well as relevant caveats effectively to non-analysts, so that analysis can effectively inform policy and decision making. It is also important that analysts have access to wider analytical networks so that they are supported in their current roles as well as their longer-term career. There is also a need for non-analyst senior leaders and policy colleagues to have a good understanding of the value that analysts can offer, so that they draw on them as effectively as possible. Senior non-analysts also have a vital role in championing the importance of good analytical evidence in government and investing in the future analytical capability of their departments.
Governance and standards
It is important that there are clear standards for analysts in Government and that analysts have the access to the guidance that they need. We discussed the varying approaches to governance and the structure of analytical staff with each of the Devolved Administrations to understand their unique approaches. We have heard about lots of positive work being carried out by several different parts of Government in this area, including the Government Analysis Function, the Government Statistical Service and the ONS Data Science Campus. We have also been thinking about the role of OSR in supporting and championing good analysis too.
This is just taster of what we have heard. Our future outputs will explore these themes in greater detail, to highlight the important role that strong analysis plays in informing government decisions and improving the lives of UK citizens.
What are we doing next?
Through our discussions we have heard numerous examples of good practice (almost too many to count!), as well as ideas and suggestions for possible areas for improvements. We will be getting back in contact with individual teams to discuss the finer details of the good practice examples and how we can help promote their work through case studies, blogs or other communications. Through sharing these case studies, we hope to enable other leaders, analysts and organisations to break down barriers to effective analytical leadership and to take positive action.
Our current plan is to divide up our findings into several smaller reports based on high level themes that we have identified. The first of these will be based on the theme senior leadership and culture, in summer 2023.
We will also use the insights we’ve gathered to plan targeted engagement with specific audiences, and to enhance our regulatory work and other upcoming reports, such as our 2022/23 State of the Statistical System report.
Can I still be involved?
While we have come to the end of our formal engagement period, we are more than happy to hear from you if you have any thoughts on our work or have a great case study of analytical leadership in action that you want to share. Please get in touch via: email@example.com