In our latest blog Director General for Regulation, Ed Humpherson, discusses the divergence between internal positivity and external scepticism about analysis in Government, and how transparency is key to benefitting the public good…
Seen from within Government, these are positive times for analysis. There is an analysis function, headed by Sir Ian Diamond, which continues to support great, high-profile analytical work. There are strong professions, including economists, statisticians, operational researchers and social researchers, each with strong methods and clear professional standards. There is an Evaluation Task Force, which is doing great things to raise the profile of evaluation of policy. And data and analysis are emphasised by Ministers and civil service leaders like never before – exemplified by the 2023 One Big Thing training event focused on use of data and analysis in Government.
Yet the perspective from outside Government is quite different. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee has been undertaking an inquiry into Transforming the UK’s Statistical Evidence Base. Several witnesses from outside Government who’ve given evidence, and some of the written evidence that has been provided, highlights concerns about the availability of analysis and how it’s used. In particular, witnesses questioned whether it’s clear what evidence sources inform policy decisions.
What explains this divergence between internal positivity and external scepticism?
In my view, and as I said in my own evidence before the Committee, it all comes down to transparency. By this I mean: the way in which analysis, undertaken by officials to inform Ministers, is made available to external users.
This is highly relevant to the Committee’s inquiry. A key question within the inquiry is the way in which external users can access analysis undertaken within Government.
These questions are very relevant to us in OSR. We have developed the principle of Intelligent Transparency. You can read more here, but in essence, Intelligent Transparency is about ensuring that, when Government makes statements using numbers to explain a policy and its implementation, it should make the underlying analysis available for all to see.
As I explained to the Committee, we make interventions when we see this principle not being upheld – for example, here and here. When we step in departments always respond positively, and the analysts work with policy and communications colleagues to make the evidence available.
My basic proposition to the Committee was that the more Government can comply with this principle, the more the gap between the internal insight (there’s lots of good analysis) and the external perception (the analysis isn’t used or made available), will close. This commitment to transparency should be accompanied by openness – the willingness to answer questions raised by users; and a willingness to acknowledge the inherent limitations and uncertainties within a dataset.
In terms of what we do at OSR, I wouldn’t see any point, or value, in us going upstream to consider the quality of all the analysis that circulates within Government.
Our role is about public accessibility and public confidence – not about an internal quality assurance mechanism for economics, operational research, social research and other types of analysis undertaken in Government. We are not auditors of specific numbers (ie a particular figure from within a statistical series) – something we have to reiterate from time to time when a specific number becomes the focus of political debate. Nor do we have the resources nor remit to do that. But we DO have both the capacity and framework to be able to support the appropriate, transparent release and communication of quantitative information.
This is the heartland of our work on statistics, and it’s completely applicable to, say, economic analysis of policy impacts, or evaluations of the impact of Government policy. There are good arrangements for the quality of economic analyses through the Government Economic Service (GES), and the quality of evaluations through the Evaluation Task Force (ETF); and similarly for the other disciplines that make up the Analysis Function. The ETF is a new kid on this particular block, and it is a great innovation, a new force for driving up the standards and openness of Government evaluations.
Where we add value is not in duplicating the GES, or ETF, or similar professional support structure within Government. Indeed, we already work in partnership with these sources of support and professional standards. Our expertise is in how this quantitative information is communicated in a way that can command public confidence.
In short, then, it really does come down to a question of transparency. As I said to the Committee, it’s like a garden in the early morning. Some of it is in the sunlight already, and some of it still in shade. Gradually, we are seeing more and more of the lawn come into the sunlight – as the reach of transparency grows to the benefit of the public.