In our latest blog, Mark Pont, OSR’s Assessment Programme Lead and Philip Wales, NISRA’s Chief Executive discuss engaging with statistics users and how user input can help decision making… 

In his recent blog post about keeping a statistical portfolio (and a garden) sustainable, Rob Kent-Smith described some principles to consider when balancing scarce resources across a portfolio of statistics. In this post, Mark Pont, head of our compliance programme, brings this to life a little drawing on the recent experiences of NISRA – the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Faced with some budgetary pressures, NISRA launched a consultation at the end of August 2023 and published a response just a few weeks ago.  

The Code of Practice for Statistics talks about the need to ensure that statistics remain relevant to users. The need for statistics producers to engage with users to understand their evolving needs is an important element of providing value.  

A myth that we sometimes hear at OSR is that accredited official statistics (the new name for what the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 calls National Statistics) can’t be stopped. We also hear that statistical outputs can only be added to. But it is important to recognise that just because a set of statistics has been produced in the past, this doesn’t mean that it must continue to be produced in the same way, with the same periodicity for evermore. Nor does the Code of Practice mandate a particular form of presentation or requirement for extensive commentary, as long as users’ needs are being met. To carry on the gardening idiom, sometimes plants need pruning or even removing to enable a garden to flourish. 

It’s therefore right that all options – reducing scope or frequency, or ceasing altogether – be considered.  

It’s also really important to recognise that a formal public consultation can form an important part of gathering users’ views. But this is best done within the context of more-proactive ongoing engagement, particularly with key decision-makers. 

It was therefore really good that Philip Wales, NISRA’s Chief Executive, contacted us to tell us about NISRA’s consultation. In the rest of this post, we ask Philip for some perspectives on how the consultation went, about how he went about engaging with users, and how their input helped his decision making.   


Mark: So Philip, first of all congratulations on the new role, which perhaps isn’t so new any more. How did it feel to be thrown straight into needing to make some tough decisions in the light of tight budgets? 

Philip: Thanks Mark – it’s been a challenging first ten months at NISRA, but I’ve really enjoyed it, and the time has flown by.  

You’re right to say that we faced – and continue to face – budgetary pressures at NISRA. Funding from our parent department will be around £1.9m lower in nominal terms this year compared to 2022-23. Because of inflation, that amounts to a real terms cut of close to 20% for our suite of economic, population and social statistics, not to mention our survey and data collection activities. 

To resolve this financial pressure, we’ve worked hard to find new sources of income and to move people into posts with dedicated funding, we’ve had to manage our resources well, and to think hard about our suite of outputs, which brings us to the consultation exercise we ran.  

Mark: How did you feel the consultation went? Was there anything that particularly pleased you about it, or its findings? 

Philip: The consultation we ran on our statistical outputs was an important part of managing our budgetary pressures. It gave us a chance to explain the financial context and communicate the pressures which NISRA is under to our users, and to talk about how we would manage them. It also encouraged us to think critically about  the work we do and where we add the greatest value.   

The consultation proposed changes to some of our planned outputs – either delaying them, scaling them back or suspending them – and enabled us to get feedback directly from our users.  

And on these terms, I think the consultation was a success. We had a large number of responses – from individuals, institutions, businesses and other organisations, as well as government departments – all of whom took the time to tell us that they really value the outputs we produce.  

From the feedback we got, we learned about where and how our releases are used, and we secured a better understanding of the potential impact of our proposed changes. Importantly, that feedback has helped to guide the changes we’re now making to our outputs.  

Mark: How has the consultation helped you to decide which activities and outputs to prioritise? And did you end up cutting back in the areas that you expected? 

Philip: The consultation helped us to work out how to minimise the impact of our proposals on our stakeholders.  

In lots of cases, users agreed that the changes we were proposing were the ‘least worst’ option available. Where we were combining outputs, or scaling them back to focus on the core headlines, users were understanding. Feedback also indicated that, in general, the outputs we were suspending were adding less value than our other activities: a sign we were focussing on the right things.  

Where we did meet real concern and resistance – particularly on some of our hospital infections releases and elements of our trade data suite – we listened. In these cases, we sought new and less resource intensive ways of meeting these needs.  

For me, this is the hallmark of a good consultation: asking people for feedback, listening, and then adjusting to account for their views.  

Mark: What were the most difficult parts of running the consultation? 

Philip: Well, it’ll be obvious that running a consultation like this – against a challenging financial background – isn’t a lot of fun!  

But I think the most difficult part of this process was the beginning. Sometimes, as producers, we can be a bit reluctant to ask the question ‘should I keep doing this?’ A bit like Rob said in his recent blog-post, it’s easy to think that an output should continue simply ‘because it has for a long time’, or ‘because it’s an Accredited Statistic’. People are protective of their outputs and can often be anxious when changes are discussed. 

I think this is a natural reaction, but it’s often an obstacle that we put in front of ourselves. The truth is that the skills of statisticians and analysts more broadly can be deployed in all kinds of really important ways across government, and we need to be thinking about how best to use those capabilities all the time. New datasets, new systems or new activities all mean there are new ways for skilled data analysts of all kinds to add value. In place of a guarded, defensive discussion, this lens really helped to promote the right kind of open discussion about outputs at NISRA.  

Mark: In conclusion, would you have any tips for others in a similar position? 

Philip: I think I’d give three short pieces of advice to someone undertaking an exercise like this one.  

Firstly, always keep in mind that making changes to an output isn’t a reflection on the people doing the work. Try and have an open, respectful conversation which captures the value that they can provide, recognising that sometimes less can be more.   

Second, trust and listen to one another. Changes like these are more likely to stick and less likely to have long term impacts on morale if it’s clear that you are doing this as part of a group.  

And third, trust your users. Listen to what they have to say and leave room to adjust your plans if you get unexpected feedback.  

If you want more advice about engaging with users as part of prioritisation exercises, please do contact us.