Statistical leadership: making analytical insight count

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

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.


Maximising the value of statistics through systemic reviews

It is vital that the statistics produced by government and other official bodies are as valuable as they can be to society. Statistics should be easy to access, relevant, and help the public understand important questions such as ‘How many people work in the UK health services?’, ‘What is the nature of the housing shortage?’ and ‘Are living standards going up or down?’

But, these are questions that can’t be answered with one statistic alone– and in some cases can’t be answered without evidence that goes beyond statistics as well. To complicate matters, in the UK system, there are multiple bodies producing statistics on each of these themes. To really understand the public value of statistics, it is important to look across a set of related statistics, as well as looking at the statistics individually. This is why we carry out systemic reviews – reviews that explore a set of official statistics in a thematic area or on a cross-cutting topic.

These reviews allow us to look at the relationships and signposting between statistics and to spot gaps and overlaps. The work involves discussions with people who use and produce statistics and a great feature is our ability to do more than publish recommendations – also intervening to support change directly, for example facilitating stakeholder meetings or other events.

To date we have reviewed health and social care statistics in England, and across the UK, statistics on income and earnings, city regions, crime and justice, housing and planning and international migration. We are currently looking at data linkage and innovations in statistics in the education area.

Each systemic review has identified examples of good practice. These include statisticians generating new statistics or analyses in response to user requests and presenting material in a user-friendly way. For example:

  • ONS now has a measure of cyber crime,
  • official labour market statistics can be accessed via the NOMIS platform
  • the Migration Statistics Quarterly Report combines statistics on a related topic in one publication

Each systemic review has also found areas for improvement. A common one is users of statistics finding it difficult to access what they need – for example there are four main producers publishing statistics on mental health in England which causes confusion as people can’t easily access the information they need from one place.

Users also face problems understanding how definitions vary for similar statistics, for instance on housing affordability across different parts of the UK. And it can be hard for users to interpret what a set of statistics collectively show – as in the case of various data sources on income and earnings not giving a consistent message on the state of living standards. In some cases there are gaps where statistics are not available to shed sufficient light on a topical issue – such as the rents paid by those living in private rented housing, for sub-national geographies.

Often we are able to identify changes in the way the statistics system works that can generate improvements – simple things like groups bringing together different producers at strategic and working levels and user-engagement strategies can really help prioritise efforts to improve the public value of statistics. It’s great to see the English Health and Care Statistics Steering Group set up to work across health and social care statistics bodies in response to our work identifying a lack of strategic leadership; this has now delivered changes to statistical outputs – for example ‘Statistics on Smoking – England’ which combines figures from different Departments to help users. We also like prioritised plans for statistical developments, for example ONS’s Economic Statistics and Analysis Strategy.

We consistently find that statistics producers are motivated to use data to drive improvements in policy and society. But we also find resource constraints. We strongly believe that speaking to a wide range of users of statistics and understanding their questions, innovating and collaborating across the system are vital for doing the best job statisticians can – and we also recognise that this can be challenging.

We would love to hear about your good examples and any challenges you face meeting the public value expectations of the Code of Practice. We also welcome suggestions for ways we could support improvements.