The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) has a vision of statistics serving the public good. To achieve this vision, it is critical to develop a clear understanding of what ‘the public good’ is. OSR established a research programme in 2019 which is dedicated to this cause. The findings of the research programme will contribute towards our statutory responsibility to regulate official statistics and allow us to understand how well the statistical system is serving the public good.
Public good is a concept which is defined by legislation in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (known as the SRSA) which states:
The Digital Economy Act Research Code of Practice and Accreditation Criteria (2018) elaborates on this definition and defines research which serves the public good as fulfilling one or more of the following points:
- providing an evidence base for public policy decision-making
- providing an evidence base for public service delivery
- providing an evidence base for decisions which are likely to significantly benefit the economy, society or quality of life of people in the UK, UK nationals or people born in the UK now living abroad
- replicating, validating, challenging or reviewing existing research and proposed research publications, including official statistics
- significantly extending understanding of social or economic trends or events by improving knowledge or challenging widely accepted analyses; and/or,
- improving the quality, coverage or presentation of existing research, including official or National Statistics
However, the meaning of the public good is not restricted to these definitions and it may have other interpretations (Office for Statistics Regulation, 2020). Furthermore, there is little evidence examining what the public good means to the public themselves (Waind, 2020), or what it might mean in the context of different roles within the statistical system. Of particular interest here is the role of researchers. There is little evidence to show how researchers regard the public good or how they see their work as potentially serving the public good.
One way to gain insight into the perspectives of researchers on how they view public good is to analyse applications to the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee and the Research Accreditation Panel. These applications contain statements of how planned research will serve the public good and can therefore give valuable insight into ways of defining and conceptualising it which may go beyond the definitions referred to above.
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The National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee (NSDEC) and The Research Accreditation Panel (RAP)
The National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee (which will be referred to hereafter as the NSDEC) and the Research Accreditation Panel (RAP) are two different mechanisms by which researchers and statisticians can apply to access public data.
The NSDEC was established in 2016 by the National Statistician. Applying to access public data through the NSDEC means that the advisory committee will decide whether the research in question meets the highest ethical standards and whether it serves the public good. If the conditions are fulfilled, the advisory committee can advise the National Statistician that access to public data should be granted.
Applying to the RAP is a slightly different process: the panel make decisions on whether researchers (or processors or projects) should become accredited to access public data on the grounds that the work meets five criteria, one of which refers to serving a public benefit. The RAP was provisioned under the Digital Economy Act 2017 (DEA) which sought to provide wider access to public data sets. The DEA helps to serve public good by allowing public data to be analysed by researchers who apply to do this, which represents a better use of existing data sets.
Each application has one section which researchers must complete explaining how their work serves the public good. It is this aspect of the applications which we analysed for the current study.
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Aims of the research
The primary aim of this research is to gain insight into how the public good of statistics is conceptualised by applicants to the NSDEC and RAP. The objectives of the research are:
- to understand how the public good is referred to in applications
- to identify themes in how researchers refer to the public good served by their work
- to identify examples of how statistics is serving the public good
In the longer term, the research aims to help key stakeholders (for example ADRUK) and applicants understand how to identify ways in which their work serves the public good as well as how to discuss the public good in their applications to the NSDEC and RAP, supporting the linking and sharing of data.
 One point to note is that NSDEC applications refer to public good and benefits for users, and RAP applications refer to both public benefit and public good. These terms appear to be used interchangeably, and therefore research is required to understand if there are differences in how the terms are interpreted and operationalised. In this report, the terms referred to by each application will be used with the understanding that it is likely that they refer to the same construct or are very overlapping constructs.Back to top