2022/23 casework themes

The use of management information to meet user demand

Concerns relating to the use of management information (MI) in public debate has increased this year. Our State of the Statistical System 2022/23 (SoSS) report highlighted that “There continues to be a significant shift in government and public demand for statistics and data from COVID-19 to other key issues.” The report identified that MI has increasingly been used as a way of responding to this user need, in particular to demonstrate progress against government targets and changes in data.

We found that the majority of casework regarding MI related to topics of significant public interest or political debate, where Ministers are keen to use the most up to date information. In line with our vision of statistics serving the public good, we would never want to inhibit public debate or discourage the use of MI. We recognise that Ministers will receive up to date management information about fast moving situations, but the use of this information in public statements should be by exception rather than a regular occurrence.

When using MI in public, we expect the principles of intelligent transparency to be met. This means that the data should be accessible to all, enhance public understanding, and analytical expertise should be sought for their use in public to ensure adherence to the Code.

Where MI is repeatedly used on a topic to inform public debate, producers should consider whether the relevant official statistics are sufficiently meeting the needs of users and identify proportionate ways to release this information. For example, this might involve producing new routine statistics on the topic, identifying ways to improve the timeliness of existing statistics, or making greater use of ad-hoc publications.

The case study below is an example from 2022/23 where unpublished MI was used in a public statement on a topic of high public interest. When data are sourced from unverifiable information, it leads to confusion and undermines public confidence in the department’s statistics and outputs on other topics. A further unintended consequence of data lacking context or verifiable sources is that the conversation becomes removed from the important topic of debate and focuses on the validity of the data.

Case study – Home Office statistics on migration

Across 2022/23, we reviewed 13 cases related to the use of Home Office data by Ministers on migration, including the illegal migration bill and migrant crossings on small boats. These concerns focused on a lack of publicly available data to support some of the claims that were being made. We found that there was strong support for intelligent transparency from the statisticians in the Home Office and steps had been taken to implement it in the briefing process. However, there sometimes remained a separation between Ministers communicating data and the teams who produced the analysis which meant statisticians were not always able to review last-minute changes to briefing lines.

As a result, we wrote to the Permanent Secretary, Matthew Rycroft, to highlight our concerns relating to the use of unpublished data and statistics by government ministers. We set out our expectation around intelligent transparency and how this supports public confidence and trust in statistics and the organisations that produce them. The Permanent Secretary responded positively to our concerns and met with us to discuss this further.

Overall, we are encouraged by the positive engagement we’ve had with officials in the Home Office, the constructive response to our concerns and the steps they have taken to improve data publicly available. For example, the department has introduced new official statistics on irregular migration, published additional data in response to new issues regarding Albania, and has added additional breakdowns to other existing statistics to reflect policy changes. The Home Office has also developed new internal guidance for communications and policy teams covering best practice on the use of data in public statements. This guidance also advises Ministers and briefing teams to involve analysts in preparing lines that contain statistics, to avoid unpublished information being referred to.

We continue to engage with the Home Office about how official statistics are used by its Ministers, and how the official statistics system can best support the needs of the government on this complex and high profile policy area. For example, the Home Office invited the Director General for Regulation and the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority to meet with one of its Ministers in September 2023 in order that they might discuss these issues.

While we have seen improvements in how statistics producers support the appropriate use of MI, there is always more work to be done to support statistics used in public debate. We are keen to work with producers and Ministers to ensure that when data are used, it adheres to our intelligent transparency guidance and the Code.

The impact of social media on concerns

Online communications have the ability to influence the conversations people have. When topics of high public interest are picked up by the media, this increases the opportunity for the public to discuss on social media, which in turn encourages the public to want to understand the data. We have seen a correlation in topics prominent in the media, such as migration and health care, with the topics of cases raised to us. In 2022/23, we considered 15 cases related to healthcare across the UK, ten cases regarding migration, and five cases on sex and gender data. We expect to continue to see cases in these three areas in 2023/24 as well as spikes in topic areas that are driven by the media and social media.

Alongside the increased demand for data, we have seen an increase in the dissemination of statistics through social media and other online platforms. These platforms can be a powerful tool for statistics producers to reach a wider audience and to enable real time feedback and discussion of the statistics. However, where statistics are misused in online communications, the potential for misleading messages to be spread instantly and widely creates a challenge for our role in protecting and safeguarding the use of statistics in public discourse. We have also seen a direct impact in our casework, with an increase in cases raised directly with us through social media.

Although receiving duplicate cases is not unique to 2022/23, this was the first year that these duplicate concerns were raised as a direct result of social media. We received 188 duplicate concerns regarding a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Weights and Measures consultation in August 2022. We also received 10 duplicate concerns regarding National Records of Scotland’s (NRS) monthly mortality data in March. We identified that individuals on social media were sharing their concerns and mentioning that they had written to OSR about their concerns. As the number of people sharing their concerns increased on social media, so did the number of concerns we received.

Figure 1: Monthly casework load

The graph shows the number of cases logged each month between April 2022 and March 2023. Throughout the year, but especially in August 2022 and March 2023, the graph shows the effect on the casework load by including and excluding duplicate cases.

We explore the BEIS weights and measures casework in more detail in the case study section.

Case study – Weights and measures consultation

While duplicate cases are not new for us, this year we received the most duplicate cases to date. In August 2022, 188 people wrote to us regarding a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) consultation on choice on units of measurements: markings and sales. The concerns related to a specific question that asked respondents if they would want to purchase items in imperial units or in imperial units alongside a metric equivalent. There was no option to select an outcome without imperial units at all.

We identified that individuals on social media were sharing their concerns and mentioning that they had written to OSR about their concerns. Although our remit does not cover policy consultations, these consultations can often draw on official statistics as well as create statistical evidence. We published a blog highlighting the number of concerns we had received and our engagement with BEIS to understand the rationale for this question. We stated that we would be surprised to see the evidence from this question being used in any kind of formal quantitative way.

The State of the Statistical System 2022/23 (SoSS) report acknowledged that “it can be difficult for statisticians to influence how statistics are used once they have been published”, especially when it comes to social media. Our vision is that statistics should serve the public good and a big part of that is encouraging their use in wider debate. We encourage novel ways to communicate data to a wider audience, so long as that communication is done in line with our principles for transparency to safeguard against misuse.

This year, we received several concerns regarding the use of infographics, including an Inflation infographic and a GDP growth chart. Infographics can be a great way to communicate through online platforms as they can be easily shared and discussed. The most common concern we receive regarding infographics is a lack of a source. Without a clear source, the viewer of the infographic is unable to verify the data and often the crucial context or limitations of the data highlighted by the producer is missing. We have also dealt with inappropriate use of axis or graphics that are not relative to scale, which can present a message which is unsupported by the data. This can lead to a perception that the infographic is intentionally trying to mislead which distracts from the message of the data itself.

In response to these cases, we encouraged producers to ensure that any infographics clearly identify the source of the data that was used to create the infographic. It is also important that producers and others in government communicate infographics that follow the Government Analysis Function guidance hub. This hub highlights how to visualise charts and tables, as well as providing a specific page on infographics.

Improving our casework capability

While our casework volume has increased in 2022/23, it does not necessarily correspond with an increase in misuse in the statistical system. There will always be improvements that we want to see but in general, we find that statistics producers want to get right, and we will continue to work with them to support this.

Following engagement with a range of internal and external stakeholders, we have reviewed and refreshed our intelligent transparency guidance which was published in September 2023. We are also in the early stages of looking at how we can identify best practice on intelligent transparency across government. We want to build a fuller picture from producers to evidence our hypothesis that intelligent transparency is becoming much more embedded across government. We also want to engage with those beyond the statistical profession to encourage anyone communicating data to be aware of our guidance and understand how to communicate in an intelligently transparent manner.

As in previous years, we continue to see high interest from the public in data and statistics. Figure 2 highlights that in both 2021/22 and this year, members of the public are our primary source of casework concerns. That sustained public interest in data reinforces the importance of our vision that statistics should serve the public good.

Figure 2: Casework categorised by source

The graph shows casework received in 2022/23 categorised by the source of the casework. The bars are arranged from lowest to highest proportion compared with casework received in 2021/22.

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This year, we have found that producers and those that communicate data are finding new ways to keep up with the demand from the public, but that sometimes there are unintended consequences. This was echoed in the SoSS which highlighted that “The statistical system is continuing to innovate and respond to emerging issues” but as we have made clear throughout this report, those “developments should not come at a cost to the quality of the statistics and data”. We continue to use our casework function to work with producers and users of data to ensure that data are produced and used in a way that meets our expectations as well as those of the public.

We are also pleased to see our interventions being mentioned within Parliament. Between April 2022 and March 2023 our interventions were referenced on 12 separate occasions; 10 times in Westminster and twice in the Scottish Parliament. We were also contacted by members of parliament on 16 occasions to raise their concerns with how data are used and produced.

As an organisation we also continue to grow and learn, seeking to improve where we can. We have invested in our casework function, growing the casework team from one person to three people, recognising the importance of casework and our ability to respond to concerns. That said, it is important to note that looking into cases also draws on the wider team within OSR as each case is considered by the appropriate subject domain to provide appropriate briefing when making a judgement. This will be particularly important in ensuring OSR is sufficiently prepared to support the statistical system during the next general election.

We remain open to feedback from our stakeholders about how we can improve, be this on an individual case bases or at a process level. Our case study example explores how we responded to concerns raised following our assessment of the COVID Infection Survey.

Case study – Independent Review of the Covid Infection Survey

Concerns were raised with us by the Better Statistics CIC about the Covid Infection Survey (CIS) and our approach to reviewing the CIS in 2022. In line with our expectations of statistics producers, we sought external review of our approach by commissioning an independent review. The review, led by Professor Patrick Sturgis of the London School of Economics, examined the methodological approach of the CIS, reviewed alternative approaches that could have been taken and assessed their suitability compared to the approach that was taken. In addition, we requested that the review determine whether OSR had appropriately assessed the CIS and if this review remains fit for purpose.

Sturgis’ review concluded that the design, fieldwork implementation and estimation approach of the CIS were of a high standard. It also found that OSR’s review of the CIS in 2022 did a good job of identifying the strengths of the survey as well as noting where improvements were needed. However, it also offered suggestions for a number of improvements for our future regulatory work that we have accepted in full.

Our confidence has increased this year when it comes to deciding on the best action for cases that may not be official statistics. The guiding principle for cases on the border of our remit is whether we can make a positive difference to the statistics in that area. If so, we will do what we can to support and improve data. These cases outside of our remit require extra consideration such as resource, and as such, it is an area that we continue to monitor and discuss internally.

In 2023/24, we will carry out a project to review and identify improvements to the internal process of casework. Our casework management information shows that the mean and median time to respond to cases has increased for the last two years. While this is likely to be impacted by the breadth of topics we are now looking at, there may be elements of the process that we can improve on to reduce the time it takes to close a case. We also plan to look at how we can record casework load by topics, rather than the number of concerns we have received. This will enable us to better understand trends in topic areas and be more timely with our systemic interventions.

When it comes to our expectations for 2023/24, we expect to continue responding to high numbers of casework having already surpassed the total cases we received in quarter one of 2022/23.

If you have any feedback, either on this report or the casework function itself please do contact Regulation@Statistics.gov.uk.

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