GKB: Geodemographics Knowledge Base
 

Users of official geodemographic and other statistics invariably want specific data to feed into research and decision-making. This is the essence of our engagement with official statistics: reliable access to the good quality data that we need. But life is never quite that simple. Sometimes data we want are not available. Also, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and other producers of official statistics have extensive development programmes, notably on Census 2021 and the increasing use of administrative data sources, on which they seek to consult with stakeholders within and beyond government. Engagement between users and producers of official statistics therefore calls for the active involvement of producers and of users.

For many years the Statistics User Forum (SUF) has aimed to help all producers of official statistics to improve user engagement and more effectively meet users’ needs [1]. SUF has a wide membership, including the MRS CGG, other user groups, professional bodies and organisations. We have strong links with ONS and the rest of the GSS, with ONS now providing the secretariat for SUF meetings. SUF is about championing the voice of the user of statistics, promoting the value of official statistics, and encouraging the exchange of good practice in the running of user groups, and in engagement and consultation.

There are examples of good engagement out there, such as in relation to the development of the indices of multiple deprivation. However, SUF also continues to hear about many shortcomings in engagement, such as when users make the effort to respond to consultations on statistical product developments and then hear nothing further from the producer. More and better engagement is needed, probably needing a change of culture within producer organisations. This point has been recognised more widely across British public service providers. Sir Michael Barber in November 2017 had much to say about the importance of the public sector engaging with users [2].

What does good engagement look like? There are likely to be a number of different aspects to this, to meet the evolving user and potential user base for official statistics. Social media is playing an increasing role, in part to recognise the growing number of ‘citizen journalists’ who are adding to the traditional ways is which official statistics are published and debated. But the goal of effective engagement remains to put users at the heart of everything that statistics producers do. This is proving the greatest challenge, though one where perhaps we can learn from other situations, such as the concept of co-production found in community development activities.

The refreshed Code of Practice for Statistics, published in February 2018, strongly supports the drive for better engagement. As the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) says, the code “develops thinking on statistics as a public asset based on three pillars – Trustworthiness, Quality and Value. This recognises statistics as a dynamic public service that helps people make decisions, measure performance and hold Government to account” [3]. SUF welcomes the Code and for highlighting that it is the utility of official statistics which is paramount. We look forward to working with UKSA, ONS and the rest of the GSS in implementing the code across official statistics as widely as possible.

Unfortunately, this new version of the code was not published when I met with CGG members earlier in February, but CGG already had many helpful suggestions about improving statistics engagement. These include seeking user participation on various ONS/GSS committees and groups. We also agreed that communication skills include listening and responding to users, not just broadcasting to them.

Finally, Brexit issues are never far away these days, so what’s the Brexit angle on official statistics? SUF has raised two concerns with ONS. First, there appears to be a lack of data and analysis to inform decisions around Brexit and to support commercial, policy and personal decision-making after the UK has left the EU. Second, we note that many standards for official statistics are currently set and maintained within the framework of the EU. It is not yet clear how these will be carried forward, including to maintain comparability with other European countries where this is still a user requirement. ONS reassure us that they are working on these issues, including with other relevant government departments. However, it looks as if it will not be until the middle of 2018, at the earliest, that SUF can have a substantive discussion with ONS on any of this.

I look forward to CGG and MRS’s on-going involvement in the drive for improved engagement between the users and producers of official statistics, across the range of issues and activities.

 

References:

[1]  https://www.mrs.org.uk/geodemographic/datasources#mrs-item-15532

[2] https://www.mrs.org.uk/geodemographic/datasources#mrs-item-15542

[3] https://www.mrs.org.uk/geodemographic/datasources#mrs-item-15552

 

Paul is a visiting professor in statistics at Imperial College London and is the chair of the Statistics User Forum. He retired from the ONS in 2012 after a career that had included working in several other government departments and agencies. His current research interests are around the construction and use of measures of progress that are wider than the established metric of GDP growth.

Contact details:

p.allin@imperial.ac.uk

 

 

Any views or opinions presented are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the MRS Census and Geodemographic Group unless otherwise specifically stated.

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