Office for Statistics Regulation 5-year Strategic Business Plan

Statistics for the public good

This strategic plan was developed during the coronavirus pandemic. The experience of the pandemic has influenced our business plan in two ways.

Firstly, it has shown more clearly than ever the importance to the public of trustworthy, high quality, high value information. It’s not enough for good information to be available to decision-makers: for it to serve the public good, it must also be accessible, clearly explained and fairly presented to the public. Our work in the pandemic has involved stepping in to uphold these principles, and we have evolved our approach to support a fast changing statistical environment.

Second, the pandemic has shown us what the UK’s statistical system at its best can do: produce new statistics at great speed, using new and existing methods and data sources. We have highlighted the positive way the statistical system has stepped up, included in our July 2020 report on the state of the statistical system.

Embedding these developments, so that they become the norm, is the core ambition of this strategic plan.

We do not know all of the issues that are going to be at the centre of public debate over the next five years. But we do know that we will stand up for the public’s right to access statistics and data that exhibit trustworthiness, quality and value.

This plan accordingly does not map out a detailed set of deliverables for each of the next five years. Instead, it takes the four areas in the UK Statistics Authority’s strategy, and sets out what we are trying to achieve, including near term commitments, and medium term aspirations. And it sets out too what kind of regulator we want to be, using the maturity model set out on pages 12 to 27.

In summary, OSR needs to be agile, to focus on the interests of the public as users of statistics, and to continually develop our role as an independent regulator. This plan sets out how we aim to achieve these ambitions.

Ed Humpherson

Director General for Regulation

Office for Statistics Regulation Annual Report 2019-2020

Director General for Regulation Ed Humpherson’s Report

I look back at 2019/20 with a mixture of pride and an unfulfilled ambition
to do more. The pride comes from the achievements of the team at
Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR).

This report Annual Report outlines delivery of a huge range of activities – the highlights summary on page 6 conveys the range of outputs that the team has delivered: assessment of statistics that inform fundamental public debates like migration; high profile comments on the use of statistics by politicians on health, education, crime and the economy, including during a General Election campaign; and the voluntary adoption of the Code of Practice by a range of organisations.

We’ve not just delivered assessments of individual statistics. We’ve looked systemically too – at whole areas of policy like social care, and at underpinning concepts like the National Statistics designation.

And these activities have impact: throughout this report, you will read about OSR driving improvements in the coherence of statistics; in their quality; and in the publication of new statistics and data to inform public debate (for example, health funding, education funding, police numbers). This drive to ensure the public has the fullest picture of what’s going on has also been at the heart of our work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And to understand the real source of my pride, as you read this report keep the following figure in mind: all this work is done by a team that numbers no more than 40 people. It’s an extraordinary achievement.

There are of course areas for improvement. The report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee highlighted the need to enhance our visibility and separation. This report outlines how we have addressed the Committee’s recommendations through a clearer public voice, better engagement with Parliament and a clearer relationship with the rest of the UK Statistics Authority.

Beyond these governance changes, we know that there is always more to do to ensure the public have access to the best possible data and statistics. Moving forwards, we will seek to pick up momentum in those areas where we did not fully deliver our plans in 2019/20, in particular, progressing our research programme to understand the public good of statistics and whether statistics reflect people’s lived experience.

Standing up for the public’s right to good statistics and data has of course meant we have been incredibly busy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public access to trustworthy data has been one of the stories of the pandemic. My team has adapted brilliantly to this challenge. They have continued to deliver regulation while working from home. Their work has secured both improvements in the way data are explained and used, and the publication by Government of new datasets – and demonstrates an independent, dynamic regulator in action.

I hope that as you read this report, you can see that our work really matters. I hope you will see why I’m proud of the team’s achievements and our growing confidence. And I hope you will sense our continued, unrequited appetite to support the best possible statistics that serve the public good.

Ed Humpherson
Director General for Regulation
June 2020

Exploring the public value of statistics about post-16 education and skills – UK report

We have been looking in detail at the value of the current data and statistics on post-16 education and skills. As an independent UK wide regulator, we are in a unique position to take a broader look at issues of importance to society and to make the case for improved statistics, across organisational and Government boundaries. 

This report, our second report in this topic area, explores the public value of post-16 education and skills statistics across the UK with a focus on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and updates on changes since the publication of our first, England only, report in 2019. 

Four key sectors comprise the majority of the post 16 education and skills statistics in the UK: workforce skills, universities and higher education, colleges and further education and apprenticeships, and each are covered in detail in our report. To our knowledge, this is the first time that the statistics that inform these sectors have been extensively researched at a UK wide level.  

Exploring the statistical landscape in this multi sector, multi country way has allowed us, to not only to identify the current challenges, information gaps and improvements to statistics in each sector, but to also highlight areas of good practice and shared learning opportunities. We have looked in detail as to how the current statistics are meeting the needs of users, focusing on the public value that the statistics give. In doing this we have been also been able to explore in detail how accessible the current statistics are and whether theare helping to inform a bigger, sector wide, picture. 

Post-16 education and skills affect the lives of millions of individuals in the UK. Good quality and accessible statistics are important to support the fair, efficient and effective provision of education and training. Alongside this report we will continue to engage with statistics producers to make the case for improved data and statistics in these sectors 

The state of the UK’s statistical system

This review sets out our view on the current state of government statistics. At their best, statistics and data produced by government are insightful, coherent, and timely. They are of high policy-relevance and public interest. There are good examples of statistics that effectively support decision-making in many areas of everyday life: this has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we’re seeing the kind of statistical system that we’ve always wanted to encourage – responsive, agile and focusing on users. However, the statistical system does not consistently perform at this level across all its work.

In this report we address eight key areas where improvements could be made across the system.

  1. Statistical leadership
  2. Voluntary Application of the Code, beyond official statistics
  3. Quality assurance of administrative data
  4. Communicating uncertainty
  5. Adopting new tools, methods and data sources
  6. Telling fuller stories with data
  7. Providing authoritative insight
  8. User engagement

In each area, we highlight examples of statistical producers doing things well. These examples illustrate the good work already happening which others can learn from and build on. We have organised our reflections under the three headings of Trustworthiness, Quality and Value, the three essential pillars that provide the framework for the Code of Practice for Statistics.

User engagement in the Defra Group

Why we did this review

Understanding how statistics are used and what users and other stakeholders need is critical to ensuring that statistics remain relevant and provide insight. To achieve this, statistics producers must engage with users.

To explore this aspect of statistics production, we carried out a review of user engagement in the Defra Group. This is our first departmental review of user engagement and the Defra Group made an ideal candidate for such a review. It has a large and broad portfolio of official statistics and National Statistics, with a varied public profile, public interest and impact and is therefore likely to require different approaches to engaging with users.

What we hope to achieve

Through this review we aim to develop a better understanding of the range of approaches to user engagement currently adopted within the Defra Group, and to identify the key features of effective and impactful user engagement. We hope this will support the Defra Group in enhancing its user engagement and provide broader learning for other statistics producers.

By the Defra group we mean the Core Department and Executive Agencies, Forestry Commission and those Defra Arm’s Length bodies that are designated as producers of official statistics: Environment Agency, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Marine Management Organisation and Natural England.

Related links:

Correspondence: Ed Humpherson to Ken Roy: User engagement in the Defra Group

Blog: What we have learned from the Defra Group about user engagement

Presenting estimates of R by government and allied bodies across the United Kingdom

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic there has been increasing focus on, and interest in, the reproduction number – R. R is the average number of secondary infections produced by 1 infected person.

OSR’s observation of recent presentations of R is that generally a good job is being made of explaining both the number itself and its implications for the UK and each of the devolved nations. However, there is room for estimates of R to be presented more clearly and explained more meaningfully. Lessons can be learnt from the approach to publication of R by different nations of the UK.

Decision-makers across the UK have made it clear that decisions about how we come out of lockdown and whether or not any restrictions need to be re-introduced in future are informed by the value of R.

The latest estimates of R have become widely quoted by scientists, government officials and the media.
R for the UK is estimated by a range of independent modelling groups based in universities and Public Health England (PHE). Scientific advisers and academic modellers compare different estimates of R from the models and collectively agree a range which R is very likely to be within.

Devolved nations tend to use either those same independent models or one preferred model and apply data about the pandemic in their own countries to arrive at their consensus estimates of R. All devolved nations are publishing or intend to publish estimates for the range of R in their different countries on a regular (most on a weekly) basis. We commend the cooperation taking place between the four nations to bring about a consistent approach to R and where it should be published.

We’ve been impressed that explanations have succeeded in conveying the importance of the R-number and the role the estimates play in advice to ministers. We particularly commend;

The accessibility of the statistics

  • Estimates of R sit within a crowded, and sometimes confusing, landscape of other data and we found that broadly the needs of different types of users and potential users have been taken into account in the presentation and release of the statistics and data.

The presentation of uncertainty

  • For example, presenting R as being within a range clearly demonstrates the uncertainty in the estimate. We particularly liked the presentation of uncertainty in the Welsh Government’s Technical Advisory Cell Monitoring document which uses a fan chart to show the uncertainty. The use of estimates to one decimal place is also commended as it also conveys the uncertainty of the estimates.

The narratives about the estimates of R

  • These are particularly helpful when they are simply worded, adopt visually engaging summaries with charts and infographics about the R-number, and are presented alongside data. An example of helpful referencing to source data is the Scottish Government’s presentation Coronavirus: Modelling the epidemic in Scotland: Issue 2
  • We see the value of these narratives as helping to make sense of the decisions about school closures, social distancing and other measures aimed at reducing the spread of the virus.

We expect that as more data becomes available and more knowledge is gained about the pandemic, there will naturally be improvements in the presentation of R. Our observations suggest that producers can improve the value and quality of their statistics about R by:

Adopting even clearer language and terminology to describe estimates of R

  • For example, describing the estimates of R as ‘a consensus value’ alongside a range is confusing without explaining what is meant by a ‘consensus value’. Producers need to be clear about messaging whether potentially small changes in ranges for the value of R are statistically different from previous week’s consensus.

Linking to clear and easily accessible supporting materials

  • Cited research should demonstrably support the evidence and ideas being put forward.

Clearly explaining the sensitivity of the models to key assumptions

  • Users of these statistics who are more analytical or who want more information about the data before they are confident in the analysis, may wish to understand the sensitivity of the estimates of R to key assumptions in the models.

We advise people, when speaking publicly or writing about R, adopt due accuracy and provide sufficient context to avoid misleading people. Key learning from the presentation of R for the UK and for devolved nations to date has been;

  • Be careful to help people see R in the context of other data for example alongside data on the number of people infected, and other relevant factors such declining or increasing infection rates.
  • Clearly communicate the extent and nature of any uncertainty in the estimates. For example, clearly state the uncertain nature of the estimates and avoiding talking about estimates as if they are fact. Also, there is a need for even greater caution when infection rates become very low.
  • Be clear that estimates of R come from modelled assumptions, which is why different models can yield different estimates. Good practice is, where possible, take account of the results from various models to discuss the range for the possible values of R.
  • Be aware that some groups access information on coronavirus through hearing the narrative about the latest alone and are unable to see slides or graphical information. This places a responsibility on commentators to be clear and accurate in what they say.

Adult Social Care Statistics: Summary Report for Great Britain

Following the publication of our reports on adult Social Care statistics for England, Scotland and Wales, the Office for Statistics Regulation has published a summary report for Great Britain.

This report draws together the main findings from each of the three countries. We closed the project strand for Northern Ireland, following the publication of a letter in March 2019.

We spoke to a range of users of these statistics, as well as reviewing existing outputs. Given the devolved nature of adult social care, we looked at statistical issues in each of the four countries separately.

Today’s report highlights common challenges and frustrations, as well as good practice relating to adult social care. It concludes with our priorities for action that each of the three countries should take to improve adult social care data and statistics.

Related Links:

Report on Adult Social Care statistics in England (January 2020)

Adult Social Care Statistics in Scotland (February 2020)

Adult Social Care Statistics in Wales (June 2019)