Why do organisations do the things they do? Strip away all the language of business plans and objectives and strategies, and what it often boils down to is wanting to achieve some kind of positive impact.
It’s important to remember that as we launch our latest business plan for 2022/23. In this blog, rather than highlight specific outputs and priorities, I want to talk more generally about how OSR, as a regulator, secures positive change.
By change, we mean regulatory work or interventions that ensure or enhance statistics serving the public good. There are basically two ways in which our work leads to statistics serving the public good. Our work can:
- secure a positive change in the way statistics are produced and/or presented; and/or
- make a direct contribution to public confidence and understanding.
OSR clearly does secure impact. In response to our reports, producers of statistics make changes and improvements to their statistics and other data. Statistics producers also use the presence of OSR in internal debates as a way of arguing for (or against) changes – so that OSR casts a protective shadow around analytical work. OSR can also secure changes to how Ministers and others present data. And OSR also achieves impact through getting departments to publish previously unavailable data. In all these ways, then, OSR secures impact, in the sense of statistics serving the public good to a greater extent.
In terms of formal statutory powers, the main lever is the statutory power to confer the National Statistics designation. This in effect is a way of signalling regulatory judgement. The regulatory role is to assess, i.e. to review and form a judgement and on the basis of the judgement, that National Statistics designation is awarded. We have recently been reviewing the National Statistics designation itself.
A further power in the Statistics and Registration Service Act is the power to report our opinion. Under section 8 of the Act, we are expected to monitor the production and publication of official statistics and report any concerns about the quality of any official statistics, good practice in relation to any official statistics, or the comprehensiveness of any official statistics.
These statutory powers do not create influence and drive change by themselves. We need to be effective in how we wield them. We have to supplement them with a powerful vision, good judgement, and effective communication.
The power of ideas
The most significant source of influence and impact is the power of the ideas that underpin the Code of Practice for Statistics. The Code is built on the idea that statistics should command public confidence. It is not enough for them to be good numbers: collected well, appropriately calculated. They must have attributes of trustworthiness, quality and value.
The power of these ideas comes from two sources. First, they are coherent, and in the Code of Practice, are broken down into a series of increasingly granular components – so the ideas are easy for producers to engage with and implement. Second, they have enormous normative power – in other words, trustworthiness, quality and value represent norms that both statisticians and, senior staff want to be seen to adhere to, and wider users want to see upheld.
These powerful, compelling ideas represent, then, something that people want to buy into and participate in. A huge amount of OSR’s impact happens when OSR is not even directly involved – by the day-to-day work of statisticians seeking to live up to these ideas and the vision of public good that they embody.
OSR’s work begins with the ideas embodied in the Code, which we advocate energetically, including through our crucial policy and standards function. The core work for OSR actually consists of making judgements about trustworthiness, quality and value, in multiple ways:
- our assessments of individual sets of statistics, where we review statistics, form judgements, and present those judgements and associated requirements to producers and then publicly – either through in-depth assessment reports, or by quicker-turnaround reviews of compliance;
- our systemic reviews, which address issues which cut across broader groups of statistics, and which often focus on how of we statistics provide public value, including highlighting gaps in meeting user needs;
- our casework, where we make judgements about the role statistics play in public debate – whether there are issues with how they are used, or how they have been produced, which impact on public debate; and
- through our broader influencing work, including our policy work, and our research and insight work streams.
These judgements are crucial. Our ability to move fluidly using different combinations of our regulatory tools is important to securing impact. It allows us to follow up where the most material change is required and extend our pressure – and support – for change.
We are able to make judgements primarily through the capability of OSR’s people. Their capability is strong, and we depend on their insight, analysis, judgement and ability to manage a range of external relationships.
Communication and reach
It is not enough for us to make good judgements. We need to make sure that any actions are implemented – in effect, that our judgements radiate out into the world and lead to change.
There are three main channels for achieving this reach:
- Relationships with producers: our relations with producers are crucial. Heads of Profession and the lead statisticians on individual outputs are the key people for making improvements; their buy-in is crucial.
- Voice and visibility: having a public voice magnifies our impact. It ensures that policymakers are aware of what we do and understand that our interventions can generate media impact.
- Wider partnerships: while our direct relationships with producers, and our public voice, can also create sufficient leverage for change, we also draw on wider partnerships. For example, credible external bodies like the RSS and Full Fact can endorse and promote our messages – so that producers face a coalition of actors, including OSR, that are pushing for change.
And we put a lot of emphasis on the views, experiences and perspectives of users of statistics. Almost all our work involves engaging with users, finding out what they think, and seeking to ensure producers focus on their needs.
In that spirit, we’d be very keen to get reactions on our own business plan – from all types of users of statistics, and also from statistics producers.
Business plans should not simply be a list of tasks. It is also important to be clear on how an organisation delivers, how individual projects and priorities help achieve a positive impact. In OSR’s case, achieving this impact involves the power of ideas, good judgement and effective reach.
With this clarity around impact, our business plan (and work programme) comes to life: more than just a set of projects, it’s a statement of ambition, a statement of change.
But the business plan is also not set in stone. We are flexible and willing to adapt to emerging issues. So if there are other areas where we should focus, or other ways we can make a positive difference, we’d really welcome your feedback.