Should we be looking for a new National Statistician or a new Statistical System?

Should we be looking for a new National Statistician or a new Statistical System?

The post of National Statistician has been announced on the civil service website, with applications required before midnight on 5th December. Sir Ian Diamond’s existing appointment has been further extended to run until the end of March 2023 and it is widely expected that he will re-apply for the position. Final interviews for the job are expected on 2nd February, following preliminary interviews from 19th December to 6th January and assessments from 16th to 27th January. Oddly, all applications are to be sent directly to an executive at the management consultancy Korn Ferry, whose appointment was announced in Civil Service World with the statement that “The Cabinet Office has signed a contract worth up to £75,000 with Korn Ferry to help with this year’s recruitment process. The management consultancy firm will advise on the job advert, specification and salary; design an advertising strategy; come up with a plan to attract a diverse field of candidates; and produce advertising material.”

Since applications close in less than a fortnight there’s not much time for detailed planning and advertising but the expectation is that Korn Ferry’s head-hunters will be working overtime. However, it appears that their role will be more than providing suitable applicants, because the selection process specifies that all the preliminary interviews are to be conducted by Korn Ferry executives.

There is no doubt that this is an important job, with a very extensive range of responsibilities impacting on almost every aspect of our lives. But does that mean that much of the selection process should be provided by a management consultancy? Moreover, is it truly necessary to ensure that the process of selection will not be influenced in any way by politicians? It seems that our mistrust of those who have succeeded through the democratic process is such that we need to ensure that the selection will be left entirely to the civil service and their advisors. The assumption seems to be that they are the only people who can be fully relied upon to understand the ‘public good’.

Meanwhile, it has been suggested that the appointment of Korn Ferry is partly to ensure that there will be some serious competition to Sir Ian Diamond. It is believed that Sir Ian is widely recognised as having done a good job on Covid and the Census, and as a result his application will have an inhibiting effect on other potential candidates, so Korn Ferry will be very important to get a good field of candidates. For those interested in further details, this blog from Britain in Numbers provides a comprehensive review of the history of Sir Ian Diamond and the post of National Statistician.

In truth, we at Better Statistics find it difficult to be overly concerned with which individual should end up as being selected to fulfil the role. Although we are unable to agree that Sir Ian has fulfilled his responsibilities with the distinction others appear to bestow upon him; anyone who takes the trouble to examine the facts of the post will realise that, at least part of the reason for any failure is that the role is virtually impossible to fulfil. So the facts are that, despite the hype largely created by the UKSA’s PR team, there are serious cracks in Sir Ian’s performance below the surface. Where that’s not the case, then it is very unlikely that Better Statistics CIC would have been formed.

The following partial description of the post of National Statistician provides a taster of the range of responsibilities the he / she is expected to perform:

The UK’s National Statistician is Permanent Secretary of the Office for National Statistics and Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority, Head of the Government Statistical Service (GSS) and Head of the Government Analytical Function (AF).

He /she has 5 separate strategic responsibilities including the requirement to “Drive innovation across the statistical service, embracing and exploiting the opportunities presented by the Digital Economy Act 2017” and “Provide advice to the UK Statistics Authority Board, Parliament, ministers, the Cabinet Secretary and other senior officials on the production, dissemination and use of statistics across government. The post holder will have an international profile as the UK’s representative at the United Nations on statistical issues”.

There are also 5 precise delivery responsibilities to be fulfilled, not the least of which is to “Promote best practice and compliance with the Code of Practice for Statistics by ONS and government departments generally, and build and maintain excellent relations with the Authority’s independent regulator, the Office for Statistics Regulation.”

It is this latter responsibility that offers the majority of the evidence of failure, largely because there is a flaw in the structure of the UKSA. The OSR is not seen to act as the Authority’s independent regulator as stated above, because it reports to the board of the UKSA, where the National Statistician is the Chief Executive Officer. In our opinion, that fact has weakened the effectiveness of the regulatory regime to the detriment of the quality of our national statistics and therefore their reliability.

Better Statistics are not the only ones to take that view. The structure of the UKSA was strongly criticised by PACAC in a report on the governance of official statistics, published in July 2019 (see PACAC report).That report argued that the dual role of the UK Statistics Authority in both producing and regulating official statistics had compromised its ability to ensure that statistics serve the public good and recommended it should be split into two separate bodies.

The PACAC report also criticised the poor level of user engagement provided by the UKSA and one of the important activities for Better Statistics has been involvement with a series of discussions on this subject, firstly with the Good Practice Team at the GSS and then with Owen Brace (Director of Communications and Digital Publishing, Office for National Statistics).These discussions had included other interested parties such as Professor Paul Allin (then of the Stats User Forum) and Mike Hughes of the National Statistics Advisory Group of the Royal Statistical Society and they had extended from (prior to) the foundation of Better Statistics in February 2021 until March of this year. Then, in March, the National Statisticians Expert User Advisory Committee (NSEUAC) was formed under the chairmanship of Professor David Hand. The minutes of the first meeting of NSEUAC, held on the 28th March 2022, provided the draft of the new User Engagement Strategy and terminated any further discussions. It is notable that details of the new strategy remain uncertain several months later, with the exception that the ONS no longer supports the Statistics User Forum on the Stats User Network.

Effectively, the discussions on the future of user engagement were entirely without merit and simply wasted time because the UKSA has proceeded with their plans despite the inputs from users. This seems to be a regular occurrence with ONS consultations – it is important to be seen to ‘consult’, but there is absolutely no requirement to listen!

Specifically, the users had sought an independent Statistical Advisory Council as set out in the United Nations guidance on user involvement with official statistics. We felt that In the absence of a truly independent regulatory body, an independent advisory council could possibly provide some external influence. But the National Statistician could not accept any body that would not be under his authority, indeed the original proposal was that the National Statistician would also chair NSEUAC. Meanwhile most members of NSEUAC are persons who are now or have been directly involved with one or other aspect of our statistics system, without there being any genuine independent user involvement.

At the time of the recruitment of Sir Robert Chote it had been suggested that there would be a review of our statistics system and we believe that is now an urgent requirement. An example of our concern is that, for over a year now, Better Statistics has been seeking clarification of some aspects of the Covid-19 Infection survey and we have consistently met with obfuscation and delay. It is now our intention to make our concerns with the CIS more widely known, in the hope that we might force the ONS to provide the information that the code of practice implies should be readily available to all.

Hopefully, that will help to persuade the politicians to now follow up on the PACAC report of 2019 and consider the recommendations that Sir Bernard Jenkin had made at that time. They are very seriously overdue.