Main findings and recommendations

The situation in 2022

The pandemic reinforced the vital role that data and statistics play in our society and their ability to serve the public good. Data and statistics enhanced public understanding on important issues and supported individuals to reach informed decisions and hold their governments to account. In the context of the increased demands on producers, we have identified four key areas which support the production of statistics which serve the public good.

  • Firstly, producers must understand what information people need so that they can prioritise effectively. This involves engaging with users to understand their needs and developing a good understanding of issues which are topical or likely to become topical in the near future; horizon scanning in other words.
  • Once producers have a good understanding of user needs and issues of high public interest, they must ensure that data and statistics are made available in an accessible, transparent and timely way.
  • In order to publish statistics which provide maximum value for users, producers will often need to collaborate to share data and improve coherence.
  • Finally, producers must continue to innovate to communicate their data and statistics in a clear and engaging way to a wide range of users.

Each of these areas is explored in more detail later in this report.

Over the last year (October 2021-October 2022), we found excellent examples across health and social care statistics in each of these four areas (horizon scanning, making data available, collaboration and communication). Collaboration and communication are two areas which were particularly successful during the pandemic. Sharing good practice and lessons learned from these achievements will be helpful for the whole of the UK’s statistical system.

Sustaining innovations to health and social care statistics

Much like the UK’s health services, we have found a statistical system which is transitioning from pandemic crisis mode to living with COVID-19. The main challenge of this transition is sustainability – by which we mean the ability of health and social care statistics producers (referred to as producers from now on) to sustain current levels of work. It has been possible to meet the increased analytical demands of the pandemic for the past two and a half years, thanks to the extraordinary, dedicated efforts of producers. However, it is unclear how sustainable it will be for producers to maintain current levels of work, particularly as new priorities emerge and while the challenges of recruitment and retention of staff, which we highlighted last year, remain.

While the intense demands of the pandemic have now eased for producers, a real challenge is maintaining some level of analysis relating to COVID-19 while working on other priorities. Ongoing demands include the production and publication of statistics about COVID-19, publishing new statistics to measure emerging issues, such as new disease outbreaks, and re-invigorating ‘business as usual’ statistics, such as those on NHS performance and workforce. Some of these increased demands can be seen in the increase in analytical outputs throughout the pandemic – for example, Public Health Scotland told us that it experienced a roughly one third increase in publications since the beginning of the pandemic. Many health and social care producers are also responsible for producing internal analyses for the management of services and direct care purposes, such as identifying and managing patient cohorts.

In the UK, the pandemic is in a different stage now than it was during the first 12 to 18 months: vaccines and treatments have dramatically reduced the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 for most people. As a result, governments across the UK are managing the pandemic in a different way, for example through the UK Government’s Living With COVID-19 policy which eased the majority of domestic restrictions in England. The consequent decline in public and media interest in COVID-19 statistics has helped to ease the burden for producers. However, many have found it hard to reduce or remove outputs about COVID-19 due to some level of continuing user demand, even if the value of the information is no longer as high. Producers have also found that there is a growing expectation that non-COVID publications should be produced at a similar pace and scale as statistics about the pandemic.

In these circumstances making the best use of analytical resources is essential. Producers are managing demands through prioritisation and by working differently (for example, by automating manual processes and increasing the use of dashboards, which can be less resource intensive in the long-term though do require upfront investment to development). As we have said before, we are supportive of producers reviewing their existing statistics to decide which should be continued, restarted, or stopped, and how or with what frequency. This should be based on balancing user needs with resource and the ongoing burden on staff. It should be noted that engaging with users to understand their needs and agree changes to statistics also requires dedicated resource. However, we consider that this engagement is essential to ensure that statistics provide value and to support producers to prioritise appropriately.

Next steps

There is still progress to be made against several recommendations in our 2021 report, including on the transparency of numbers used publicly by governments and on overcoming barriers to data sharing. We have also identified some new areas which require focus. We want to see producers being proactive to minimise the misuse of their statistics. And there is a need for further guidance from the Analytical Function Central Team on the use of dashboards and Twitter to communicate statistics to a broad range of people.

We continue to work closely with users and producers of health and social care statistics, and will engage, where relevant, more broadly across governments, to push for progress on our recommendations. We will advocate for and support solutions to improve transparency through our ongoing intelligent transparency campaign. Our planned review on data sharing and linking will gather examples of good practice as well as develop our understanding of barriers to support positive change. We also continue to monitor issues relating to transparency and the misuse of statistics through our casework.

The following sections of this report expand on the four key areas that support the production of statistics that serve the public good (horizon scanning, making data and statistics available, collaboration and communication).

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