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.


Move fast and don’t break things: the challenges of strategy for statistics

Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation, writes about the challenges faced by statisticians formulating strategy in a constantly changing landscape.

At the end of last year, I attended a conference where heads of statistical offices from various Commonwealth countries put their heads together. One session involved them defining the leadership challenges statisticians face.

Their list said that statisticians in leadership roles need to:

  • demonstrate high levels of integrity
  • be deeply knowledgeable about statistics
  • have the ability to set vision and define strategy
  • be skilled in communication
  • have strong people leadership skills

We also heard they need resilience; need to be inclusive; face increasing demands and loss of monopoly; and need to build partnerships across society. These challenges are significant, and not just for heads of statistical agencies, but for statistical professionals and leaders across Governments.

But to some extent the list is quite generic. It’s difficult to think of a role that doesn’t require communication and people leadership skills; integrity is – or should be – a valued commodity in every role. What is it that is unique to statistical leadership in official statistics?

The challenges of strategy for official statistics

To me the most salient of these challenges revolves around strategy. Statisticians face an environment that is changing and full of a series of trade-offs:

  • being expected to provide definitive views versus recognising the uncertainty in the statistics produced: statisticians are often asked for The Number, the single point estimate that resolves an issue – or can be dropped into a briefing or speech as it if was just padding, mere upholstery. But the statistical leader knows that the single number is elusive; whether it means what people think it means depends crucially on what question you are trying to answer. Conveying this while still providing relevant, useful insight, is a huge challenge.
  • using new forms of data and new tools versus providing consistent time series. The expectations that statisticians get with the worlds of Big Data and data science are growing all the time. Yet because new data can create new insight, they can also represent a decisive break with the past. So what should the statistician do? Preserve a time series so the present can be compared with the past? Or update methods and data sources to take advantage of all that the digital revolution has to offer? Our answer at the Office for Statistics Regulation starts from the principle that statistics should always be the best available estimate. But it’s not straightforward for statisticians to deliver on this principle where stakeholders value and need consistency of data over time. The best balance is likely to differ in different contexts and for different users of statistics.
  • serving experienced users versus wider populations of ordinary citizens. “Users” is a broad and complex concept. What works for those who delve deeply into the data, use it regularly to answer specific technical questions, may not work for people who only rarely engage with the statistics. This is the challenge of the lived experience, of the “that’s your GDP, not mine”, and it’s a huge issue for those who produce statistics.
  • serving Government decision makers like central banks and finance ministries versus informing wider public debate. Statistics must serve a much wider constituency than this – and serving both the elite decision making group and the wider audience can be demanding. A strategy like Better Statistics, Better Decisions can looks like it’s focused on senior policy makers who make the Big Decisions, even though John Pullinger (the National Statistician) always emphasises that the idea of a “decision maker” can go much wider.

The common thread of these trade-offs is managing a balance of technical and democratic roles. Statisticians are technocratic – perhaps the epitome of the technocrat – but they also perform an essential social role: the public want to see themselves, their lives, in the statistics, and not feel that statistics are remote, technical, abstract, dry. And this balance is harder now than ever – because the availability of data and the complexity of our societies demands more sophisticated tools of analysis (more technocracy) at the same time as there is a growing sense of mistrust of evidence, data, elites, and a growing demand among people for recognition of their identity (more social engagement and democracy). All of this requires openness: opening up while preserving core capabilities.

And supporting this opening up is such an important role for the Office for Statistics Regulation. We do this when we assess statistics – always emphasising the central role of opening up to a wide range of users. We do it when we do systemic reviews, focused on the value of statistics in areas like housing, health and migration. And we do it through our Code of Practice for Statistics, which is all about opening up the processes and outputs of statistics.

Move fast and break things?

Statisticians need to embrace disruption, and be urgent – to be ambitious and move quickly. But this disruptive task is not as simple as the motto of a commercial tech company: to move fast and break things (apparently Facebook’s original motto).

The strategic challenge is much harder, and therefore more interesting: the trustworthiness of official statistics is incredibly precious and statistical producers hold it in trust for the societies they serve. They mustn’t casually destroy it. This is what makes it an energising challenge – to change and develop statistics using new data sources and new techniques while enhancing connection with the public that statistics exist to serve.

And it’s our job is to help producers of statistics meet their strategic challenge: to Move Fast But Not Break Things.


Having a better public debate about crime

Pat MacLeod, lead regulator for crime and justice statistics in the Office for Statistics Regulation, writes about why it’s not easy to say what’s happening to crime and the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) efforts to improve the public debate.


Nearly everyone is interested in hearing about crime. Questions that the public might ask like ‘is crime going up?’ or ‘is there more violent crime now?’ sound deceptively simple. Yet answering questions on the amount of crime and how it is changing is not easy. It is ONS’s job to do this in England and Wales.

Crime is the combination of individual acts that are defined as against the law, the make-up of which changes over time. Some things commonly described as crimes, like knife crime are, in fact, a collection of legally defined crimes such as homicide, robbery or assault that involve a knife. And by its nature, crime covers lots of things that are secretive or hidden. So, as well as being hard to define, crime is also difficult to measure.

To keep it simple – and I’ve simplified what follows a lot – let’s look at how ONS measures the sorts of crime experienced by the general adult population. Things that we might think of conventional crime like theft, assault and vandalism. The Crime Survey for England and Wales is as close as you can get to measuring the amount of crime that the general adult population experience and how many people experience crimes in those countries. It tells us about crimes that the police know about as well as the ones that have never come to the notice of the police. It is not so good at telling us about crimes that don’t happen very often across the adult population, like robbery.

Statistics on crimes that the police record are the other main way ONS measures crime in England and Wales. These statistics count the number of crimes police are aware of and have officially recorded. Naturally, they don’t include crimes the police aren’t aware of. Just now, more people are telling police forces about some crimes like domestic abuse and sexual offences. The police don’t correctly record every incident they should as a crime, although there is some evidence they are getting better at doing this. All of this means that, when the police record more crime, it might indicate increasing demand or improving processes, but it doesn’t automatically follow that crime has increased. It needs careful investigation before that link can be made.

For a long time, from the early 1990s, it looked like conventional crime was going down in England and Wales. In 2014, when the crime survey still showed crime going down, the numbers of crimes recorded by the police started to increase. This was mostly due to police forces in England and Wales getting better at recording the crimes they were made aware of.

Hearing this, you might be forgiven for thinking that it would be best not to rely on crimes recorded by the police if you want to find out what is happening to crime in England and Wales. But that’s not the whole story. The crime survey has a time lag which makes it hard to spot when things start to change. Despite the limitations of statistics on crimes recorded by the police, recent increases in crimes that the police record well, like those involving a knife, gave an early indication that these were increasing.

So, it’s not easy to answer those deceptively simple questions about crime. What we can confidently say, though, is that interest in hearing about crime will continue. That’s why we will continue to support ONS’s efforts to ensure the public is properly informed by statistics about crime, and continue to speak out whenever we see that the public debate is not well served.

Late last year we wrote to ONS encouraging them to look at more ways to improve the value of ONS’s crime statistics to the public debate. Since then I’m pleased to say that we have seen steady improvement in the way ONS reports what is happening to crime and I think their last two publications – for year ending June 2018 and year ending March 2018 – are the clearest yet. I especially like their focus on how particular crimes are changing and on how it is mercifully rare for most people to be a victim of most crime. It is an ongoing challenge for ONS – and there are always exceptions – but I would say that their approach is starting to create the conditions for a better informed public debate.