Our vision is statistics that serve the public good. To realise this vision, the people who produce statistics must be capable, strategic and professional. They must, in short, show leadership. Effective statistical leadership is not just down to the most senior statistician in each organisation – as important as they are – but also requires individuals at all levels and across professions to stand up for statistics and champion their value.

In support of this, we initiated a review of statistical leadership in government, underpinned by the expectations set out in the Code of Practice for Statistics. Through our review we hope to support an environment in which:

  1. statistics, data and analysis are used effectively to inform government decisions and support society’s information needs.
  2. statisticians – and other analytical professions in government – feel empowered to provide leadership and feel positive about their career development and prospects.

We are sharing some of the early findings from our review to highlight the work and prompt further discussion of this important topic. If you have any comments or would like to speak to one of the team please find contact details on the review page or email regulation@statistics.gov.uk.

What we aim to achieve

Based on our review to date we have identified four outcomes we would like to see which form the focus of our future work on statistical leadership.

  1. The value of statisticians and other analysts is understood by influencers and decision makers, and they see the benefits of having them at the table

It is critical that analysts are involved as policy and performance targets are developed. Our review suggests that while there are examples of statisticians being highly valued and involved in policy development throughout the process, there are also occasions where this is not the case. We found that where statisticians are engaged in policy and understand the context, they are more likely to be valued by colleagues and therefore more engaged. Which in turn helps to ensure that statistical evidence is at forefront of decision making and debate. The 2018 Civil Service People Survey shows that 79 per cent of statisticians who responded to the survey felt they had a good understanding of their organisation’s objectives. While it is on a par with the all civil service response (also 79 per cent), it compares with 82 per cent for social researchers, 83 per cent for economists and 84 per cent for communications specialists.

We plan to highlight the value of analysts to decision makers, and use our influence to advocate the value of statistical insights and strong statistical leadership. We will also work with statisticians to help them articulate why they are valuable to decision makers and to ensure they have a good understanding of the policy or organisational context they work in.

  1. People have confidence in the statistical system and its ability to answer society’s most important questions.

The Code of Practice for Statistics sets out clear expectations that organisations should assign a Chief Statistician/Head of Profession for Statistics who upholds and advocates the standards of the code, strives to improve statistics and data for the public good, and challenges their inappropriate use. The code is also clear that users should be at the centre of statistical production, with producers considering both known and potential user views in all aspects of statistical development, including in deciding whether to produce new statistics to meet identified information gaps. Statisticians have a duty to uphold the code which gives them a unique responsibility compared with other analytical professions.

It is clear that statisticians face challenges in the competing demands between departmental priorities and serving wider user needs, which also require engagement and resource. However, having ambition, encouraging innovation and viewing the statistical system as a whole are essential aspects of effective statistical leadership. In our role as regulators we are in a position to support statisticians in upholding the code as well as highlighting the importance of this aspect of their roles to those they report to. We will do much of this through further targeted engagement, but will also be supported by our research programme which is exploring the broader public value of statistics and data for society.

  1. Statisticians feel empowered to provide leadership

For statisticians to deliver they need to have structures that support them. There are a range of structures in different departments, relating to where the statisticians sit and how they are managed. In some instances, teams are formed solely of statisticians, sometimes they are cross analytical and sometimes statisticians sit within policy or communications teams. Each of the scenarios comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, we have heard that when statisticians are based in policy teams, they tend to have a better understanding of the policy context, are more valued by decision makers and are more likely to input into key decisions. However, there is potential for these statisticians to have less support on upholding the code or drawing on technical expertise. We also know that the ability of the Head of Profession and statisticians more broadly to have influence can vary, depending on organisational culture or structure. For example, whether they have dedicated professional time and support, the level of delegated responsibility, and the grade and broader skill set of the statisticians concerned. To be effective and valued in all circumstances, the ability to be pragmatic in addressing (and anticipating) the needs of decision makers, while retaining professional integrity is key.

There are also strong links between statisticians feeling empowered to provide leadership and the ability of organisations to demonstrate good practice through collaboration and innovation. Statisticians also need fit-for-purpose systems to showcase their value. These are essential pre-requisites for statistics, data and analysis to be used effectively to inform government decisions and support society’s information needs.

We want to make sure statisticians (and analysts more broadly) have what they need to be effective, as well as identify any barriers to effective leadership and use our influence to overcome them. We will not make recommendations for specific structures and management approaches but will provide examples of practices which support different management structures and demonstrate how organisations have overcome some of the barriers presented by different approaches.

  1. Statisticians feel positive about their own career development and prospects

One of the concerns raised through the review is about loss of talent due to a lack of senior analytical roles. In the 2018 Civil Service People Survey, 90 per cent of statisticians who responded said they were interested in their work. However, 16 per cent said they wanted to leave their role within the next 12 months (compared with 13 per cent for all civil servants).

Statisticians may move outside of statistical roles to progress their careers, which if well managed has advantages for statistical leadership across an organisation, but there should be better structures to make sure that individuals are able to return to statistical and analytical (including leadership) roles in government and not be permanently lost to the profession.

There were also concerns raised about the talent pipeline and statisticians not always being used or developed to their full potential. It should be clearer that there are a range of career and skills development paths for statisticians at all levels, including technical routes for those who want to pursue this, and a focus on softer skills for those who want to take on leadership and more policy facing roles. This should be supported through enhanced and structured opportunities for statisticians to develop a broad range of skills throughout their careers.

We plan to work with those who deliver talent management and mentoring programmes, including the GSS People Committee to champion the need for effective career support and management for statisticians, including development programmes, secondments, shadowing and other opportunities to work in a range of settings, including getting exposure to policy or delivery facing roles. We will also work with groups like the GSS People Committee to make sure that the training that is on offer to statisticians is clear and work with Heads of Profession to help them understand what less senior statisticians need from them.

A blog like this cannot do justice to the range of issues highlighted, but we hope this gives a sense of our thinking and plans. We would welcome your views on what we have covered. Please do watch this space for further reports and engagement.