Looking back to look forward

Learning from the history of the National Statistics designation

While working on our review of the National Statistics (NS) designation I have wondered about the history of the term ‘National Statistics’ and about the designation itself. I had a pretty basic question I wanted to unravel: what does ‘national statistics’ mean?

I know how we use it now, in relation to the legal definition of having demonstrated full compliance with the Code of Practice for Statistics through the process of Assessment – but the two words have a degree of ambiguity. I wondered about the original intention and meaning and how can that help us going forward, in understanding what we need from the NS designation now. I found that there were three levels of meaning – about the statistics, about the process to produce statistics, and about the system itself. The history of National Statistics designation is summarised in these  flow charts. They give the developments over the past 30 years (in grey in the flow charts), highlighting some key observations about National Statistics in the literature.

In the early 1990s the Citizens Charter for open government, which introduced the move towards greater transparency in public policy, focused on the statistics themselves in describing official statistics as national statistics:

“They provide an objective perspective of the changes taking place in national life”.

A few years later, the Framework for ONS, which established the new Office for National Statistics in 1996, described them as informing “Parliament and the citizen about the state of the nation”. So the statistics were seen as being about the ‘nation’, for the citizen and not just for government.

As I looked across this potted history of National Statistics, it struck me that the concept of ‘national statistics’ evolved to reflect the full statistical process for preparing and publishing the statistics. This development in thinking is reflected in this quote from the ‘Statistics – a matter of trust’ green paper:

“National Statistics, that is the work supporting the production of statistics intended for public use”.

And in the green paper, we get the first mention of the term ‘National Statistics designation’:

“It would be natural for all outputs designated as part of National Statistics to be clearly marked as such”.

This approach is endorsed in the subsequent white paper, ‘Building trust in statistics’, in which the designation is formalised:

“The government does agree that it is essential to inform users of the quality of National Statistics so that they can assess their appropriateness for the intended use”.

But there is a third level of meaning for National Statistics that is represented here – the statistical system itself. Its scope is set in the white paper, as covering the whole of government, including the devolved administrations. The role of the National Statistician is created, with responsibility for the professional quality of National Statistics across the organisations in the UK. A common set of standards must be applied, as set out in the NS Code of Practice. The logo of National Statistics is also introduced, essentially as a ‘kite mark’ for the statistics. And the Statistics Commission was set up to oversee the statistical producers.

In the subsequent 20 years that followed, the system went through various reviews whose findings are helpful to us now. The legal framework we have now came from the first of these reviews by the Statistics Commission in 2004, reflecting their strong view that independence needed to be grounded in statistics legislation. The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 has this at its heart – the importance of statistics that serve the public good.

The Statistics Commission had some insights that it raised in its review of National Statistics that feel equally relevant now – they chime with feedback we received in our exploratory review. The Commission challenged the distinction between official statistics and National Statistics and recommended it be abandoned. It made the case for a kite mark – a ‘quality labelling scheme’:

“Users of statistics want a quality stamp that tells them that a particular statistical report has been prepared professionally and impartially and that a robust set of principles has been respected. However, it is less clear that adherence to the Code of Practice is itself the appropriate test to apply”

The Code Stocktake, beginning in late 2015, was an important review that collated huge insight across the stakeholder spectrum and was critical in informing the development of the refreshed Code of Practice. It was also important in helping shape the Office for Statistics Regulation, created from the Monitoring and Assessment Team of the UK Statistics Authority in 2016. The Stocktake made recommendations about focusing on the most valuable statistics in relevant groupings it called ‘families’ and suggested a ‘shelf-life’ for the NS designation.

Around the same time was the Bean review into economic statistics from ONS and also the governance of the statistics by the UK Statistics Authority. It recommended a more nuanced approach to the designation, such as looking at the benefits of score cards or having concise commentary with the statistics about their quality.

So, some important questions have been raised over the past 15 years about National Statistics and the designation. We are reflecting on these insights as we enter the second phase of our NS Designation review. We have established a steering group to help guide us and we are now beginning a series of projects to look into what we can learn from other regulators, thinking more broadly about rating and communicating judgements, what information different audiences require about the provenance and quality of the statistics, such as helping to inform decisions on whether to use the data.

We will provide further updates on these developments over the coming months. We also hope to begin some virtual discussions about the designation so please do email me at penny.babb@statistics.gov.uk if you are interested in joining the conversation.