ONS review: Stats need to get digital

ONS sign Image copyright BBC/ONS

The Office for National Statistics has to adapt to the modern digital age if wants to be seen as a world class statistical agency, a review has said.

The review of UK economic statistics was carried out by Sir Charlie Bean, the former deputy governor of the Bank of England.

He said the ONS's move to Wales a few years ago had affected the agency.

But he added that the ONS needed to modernise the way it collects, and presents, the data it compiles.

Improving IT

Sir Charlie was asked to look into the work of the Office for National Statistics after worries were raised about the quality of its work.

Concerns were expressed because of the number of mistakes that were later corrected and the revision of previously released statistics, for instance on how quickly the economy is growing.

In his review, Sir Charlie said there were several reasons for the ONS data being not as accurate as it could be.

One factor was the government's decision to move the ONS from central London to Newport in Wales in the late 2000s. About 90% of the senior staff refused to make the move and stayed in London.

The loss of experience and skills obviously hit the work of the ONS, he said, although probably only temporarily. The new team were rapidly gaining experience and that would help improve things.

Sir Charlie also pointed out that the agency has a plethora of different computer systems and models that could do with improvement and simplification.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The sample sizes for measuring statistics such as inflation were questioned

New methods

But he said the biggest issue is that, unlike world leading statistical agencies in countries such as Canada and the Netherlands, the ONS has failed to keep up with the times.

Current statistics were designed 50 years ago and the way they are compiled, collated and presented has not changed enough.

So while manufacturing industry is easy to measure - you just count how many cars a factory is making - assessing the value of bank lending is more difficult, and this matters because services now account for 70% of the economy.

Not only that but increasing amounts of the economy are also moving online, and are therefore not being counted by the old methods, or at least not as accurately as before. How does the ONS find out about a room in a private property rented out for one night using AirBnB?.

Data access

In his review, Sir Charlie also questioned the sample sizes the ONS used.

For instance, the ONS samples the views of 63,000 companies in its annual Business Survey. That sounds impressive until you realise that HMRC's VAT database has the records of 1.8 million companies.

The inflation figures, which decide how much pensions rise by, are collected by people collecting prices in shops in 140 locations across the country. Yet the daily automatic collection of prices from just three online supermarkets would bring in 6,500 price quotes a day.

Sir Charlie pointed out the amount of digital information available is doubling every 18 months and yet the ONS is still using people with clip boards to collect information.

In part he said this was not their fault. Much of the information the government collected was not available to the ONS for legal reasons.

Sir Charlie said the ONS should have access to "all publicly held data ......except where there is a strong reason not to, for example reasons of national security."

This review says the Office for National Statistics should create a new research centre to find better ways to measure digital activity and set up a second centre to look at ways that it could use a vast range of public data.

The ONS said it welcomed the findings and the recommendations were in line with the changes it was already making.

The deputy national statistician for economic statistics, Jonathan Athow, said the office was ready to "fully embrace the current revolution in data technology".

And he said the idea of sharing government data would be a big help: "They would enable us to meet the challenges of measuring the changing, modern economy and aid our transformation into a world leading statistics institute."

More on this story