Memorandum from the Statistics Users'
The Statistics Users' Council was formed in
1970 by Sir Claus Moser to act as a forum for the exchange of
views between Government statisticians and users. The main activity
has been the organisation of an annual conference at The Royal
Society with a different topic each yearEducation, Environment,
Service Sector, etc. During the Rayner years these conferences
were supplemented by seminars drawing attention to the harmful
effects of the cutbacks in statistics, particularly business statistics.
As we pointed out in 1991, UK companies no longer had the data
to allow them to measure the loss of markets due to competition
from imports. In order to maintain a meaningful dialogue, the
Council set up User Groups for specific sectors12 in totalBusiness,
Health, Education, etc with an overall membership of 1,700 individuals.
The Statistics Users' movement in the UK is unique. There is nothing
comparable in any other country. It developed precisely because
we did not have an Official Statistics Act with formal procedures
The Council unreservedly welcomes the introduction
of National Statistics. This is a campaign we have been waging
for over 20 years, starting with a paper on the need for an Official
Statistics Act at our Annual Conference in 1978. Our only concern
is that we may have misunderstood the Government's intentions.
The White Paper and Framework Document eloquently express the
role of National Statistics in providing a window on the work
of Government, enabling the public both to monitor the performance
of Government and to participate in the public debate on major
policy issues. This accords well with our own preferred definition
of National Statistics as "an essential part of the infrastructure
for evidence based decision making in a market orientated democracy".
We are moving to a participative democracy in which, rather like
the Athenian model, all citizens can be involved, albeit connected
by the Internet and the media rather than gathering in the city
The aims and objectives in the Framework Document
stress the need to consult with and develop statistics of value
to users, but the operational guidance in the Framework Document
is dominated by procedural matters and the perceived need to restore
public confidence in official statistics. Guidance on the practical
implementation of the National Statistics/User interface is hard
to find. There is the pregnant phrase "the coverage of National
Statistics will evolve over time", a reasonable statement
provided the mechanisms are in place for the identification and
evaluation of additions to the current statistical series listed
as National, but again there is scope for misunderstanding.
The euphoria we may feel about these developments
needs to be tempered by the thought that we have done no more
than join the community of developed democratic countries. The
UK is one of the last, if not the last, of our compatriots to
introduce a National Statistics Act or its equivalent. The Netherlands
celebrated the centenary of their Act last year, and the United
Nations Declaration on the Principles of Official Statistics initiated
to help the emerging countries of Eastern Europe is almost 10
The key discussion points in moving from the
principles to the practice of national statistics include:
1. The scope of national statistics.
2. How do we identify and evaluate user views?
3. How do we inform and educate users (raise
the profile of statistics)?
4. Budgets and governance.
Those points that could lead to action are listed
under the Agenda for National Statistics heading.
The Framework Document does not define national
statistics. It only describes those official statistics that fall
under the national banner and instructs the parties to develop
consultation procedures to take account of the needs of users,
so there is the opportunity for change and addition. The National
Statistics Code of Practice, adds another dimension:
"National Statistics will provide for the
integration of statistics from diverse sources through common
UK standards across all sources and practices"
but we are still not clear what is on offer.
the existing published output?
the detailed databases from which
the published output is derived?
improvements to the existing datasets
to meet the needs of users including the filling of gaps, improvements
in timeliness, frequency and detail, better correlation between
series, record linkage?
improved access through the publication
of compiled CDRoms such as the one with all the relevant cancer
statistics and the launch of CDRoms and Internet databases with
sophisticated search and analysis programmes?
the development of entirely new "official"
series to service new policy initiatives and monitor performance
the integration of statistics from
other official bodies such as the regulators (OFWAT, etc), the
police, immigration authorities, etc;
the integration of data from other
sources such as the BMA, CBI, Bank of England, etc?
If we are only talking about the existing published
output and improvements in access to the existing databases, what
is all the fuss about? Len Cook talks about the national information
base, an impressive and exciting concept, so hopefully we will
move towards the position where we start with the decisions that
need to be made on issues of public policy, wealth creation and
monitoring government performance, and develop the appropriate
statistical series to support those decisions either from within
the GSS or from outside as appropriate. One not so casual observationwhere
does the initiative come from? Does National Statistics wait to
be asked or does it take the lead?
The scope of National Statistics is more than
just the statistics that are available. It extends to how they
are used. Which leads to another not so casual observation. Does
National Statistics sit on its data or actively promote both availability
Statistics do not quite fall into the mousetrap
syndrome. Better statistics can be built but the world will still
not beat a pathway to their door. The market needs to be told
what is available. The launch of National Statistics has come
at an opportune time. Information technology, especially the CD
and the Internet, offer unparalleled opportunities for low cost
dissemination. These changes simplify the publication procedures.
Aggregation and selection are no longer required. The user can
access the database and create their own tables. The key is the
development of sophisticated search engines so that the sales
message is simplified: "We could have exactly the information
you need at little or no costtry us".
The Marketing Department at the ONS has had
a chequered history, and there is still the feeling that marketing
is not fully understood. It was disturbing to note that the KPMG
Efficiency Review for the ONS considered the marketing budget
was one of the areas where cuts could be made. Contact between
the GSS and the User Groups has been excellent. Government statisticians
serve on the committees and provide speakers for the meetings.
Those sectors of the market outside the Groups, however, are not
well served. For example, a first class booklet "Profit
from Facts" has been produced but not fully exploited.
Part of the problem is that the DTI, having lost the Business
Statistics Office, seems to have lost interest in detailed statistics,
in spite of having set up the Business Links precisely to encourage
business to become more competitive through careful market assessment.
On the broader front there is a well developed
press release system, but this tends only to relate to a particular
series being published at that time. There is a yawning gap for
a rapid response unit that can pull together the relevant statistics
when "issues for public debate" arise. Either the moment
passes and no statistics are quoted in the media, or a whole raft
of conflicting statistics are launched on the public. "It
is essential to consolidate and make sure that agreed figures
only are used. The utmost confusion is caused when people argue
on different statistical data. I wish all statistics to be concentrated
in my own branch as Prime Minister". Winston Churchill's
prescription for setting up the CSO is the right model to emulate.
If public debate is to be advanced, it needs to be supplied with
The advent of National Statistics has created
a buoyant mood among statisticians. We seem to be returning to
the nineteenth century position when statistics were the ammunition
train of the social reformers, when Prince Albert formed the Statistics
Dining Club and four members of Gladstone's Cabinet were on the
Council of the RSS, but for the wider world the low profile of
statistics has been maintained. The launch of National Statistics
was a non event, just a few column inches in the broadsheets.
References to the odd missing statistic, but no in depth analysis
of the implications of the change from Official to National. The
SUC has suggested the organisation of a National Statistics Week
to bring home to the public at large the value of statistics in
helping to develop rational policies over virtually every aspect
of their lives. The summer of 2002 could be an appropriate time,
as discussions are under way for the UK to host the bi-annual
conference of the International Association for Official Statistics.
We could scarcely be operating in a more ill
defined market. We do not know how many users there are, let alone
their "size and shape". When national statistics moves
outside government customers it is operating blind. Historically,
the ONS and other government departments have been production
orientated. If any of the published series have been of value
that is the users good luck. If not, bad luck! That is not to
say that many series are not of the greatest value to users, but
that it is really a matter of chance.
The Framework Document is full of references
to consulting users and meeting the needs of users, but not forthcoming
on how this should be done. That is left to the National Statistician
and the Statistics Commission. The task is not straightforward,
as the over-riding characteristic of users is their variety. The
non government market can be segmented in many different ways:
By sectorthe public, business,
financial markets, academia, local authorities, development agencies,
institutes, charities, pressure/lobby groups. Each of these sectors
can be sub-divided. Business, for example, splits between manufacturing
industry and the service sector, and each of those into many more
specific markets. The important point is that each of these sectors
has its own requirements for detail, frequency, timeliness and
By level of knowledgea major
distinction can be drawn between the expert user who understands
the data being used and the passive user who simply reacts to
the statistics quoted in a media story. There is, of course, no
clear dividing line between the two, but a continuum. Frequency
of use is another variable. There is a wide variation in understanding
between the regular and the occasional user.
By type of decisionstrategic
decisions taken by the Board of a company tend to require macro
economic statistics, whereas market share decisions taken by product
managers need highly disaggregated data. If you are selling malt
whisky you need market statistics for malt whisky, not data for
the whole Spirits sector.
The attributes of statisticsdetail, frequency,
timeliness and accuracyvary widely between the sectors.
Minutes are critical in financial markets, detail and frequency
essential for market share decisions by business, accuracy essential
for the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee!
A major distinction should be drawn between
the public and other sectors. The public, unless we take the media
as a proxy, tends to be a passive user, which throws the responsibility
for determining what statistics should be collected, developed,
improved, back onto national statistics. It is a derived demand
from the policy and other decisions under consideration. Ivan
Fellegi in Canada has led the way. In his paper to the 1997 SUC
Conference he demonstrated how statistics could become involved
as an integral part of decision making by reference to the Canadian
Policy Group's Report of 1996, which identified the main pressure
points that were likely to arise in Canada over the next 10 years
as a result of economic, demographic and social trends. The Group
identified the main forces as globalisation, the information technology
revolution, environmental pressures, an ageing populationa
good base for any similar analysis in the UK, to which we might
add, as a result of the Chancellor's recent threat or promise
following the fuel blockade of a debate on taxation and benefits
to the public deriving from government expendituremore
or less government. Ivan Fellegi's paper went on to specify the
policy challenges in more detail under headings including economic
growth, health, crime, income, distribution, productivity, etc.
The challenge for National Statistics is how
to emulate this approach. The ESRC seems a prime candidate for
involvement on the wider front, but in sectors such as health
the BMA and the various medical professional associations such
as the Royal College of Surgeons, would appear to be front runners
for integration, viz the health scandals of recent yearsthe
Bristol Infirmary baby deaths, Harold Shipman, and in recent weeks
the report that at the St George's cardiac unit the death rate
was five times the national average. Crime and punishment is an
unresolved quandary. We incarcerate more and more prisoners, and
yet the crime rate rises. Safety is always in the news. Discussions
of draconian measures for speeding and drink driving are followed
by reports that tiredness and inattention are the cause of the
majority of motorway accidents. These examples are only the tip
of the iceberg. On this sector approach the national statistics
theme groups would appear to be well placed to identify the issues
that need investigation. We need to bring together the existing
and develop new statistics that will inform the public debate
in these key fields. Just what are the forces at work, measuring
them at two levels:
what is actually happening?
leading to an understanding of economic
and social phenomena.
The expert users, by comparison, have much more
Inclusion of floor space in construction
More timely detailed production statistics:
The fact that UK manufacturing industry was disadvantaged by comparison
with our major international competitors because their data is
monthly and ours is annual was commented on by the last Treasury
Select Committee review of the ONS, but no action has taken place
and none is in sight. We still have annual PRODCOM published almost
a year later.
Record linkage in databases to facilitate
analysis, eg location, size and ownership of companies so that
output and trade figures can be analysed more extensively. The
identification of imports and exports by multi-nationals would
be an important addition to our knowledge of international trade
This part of the market is highly segmented
with each sector having very specific requirements which can only
be properly identified and quantified by a well structured questionnaire
with attitude rankings. The present consultation exercise is a
good start and should help to create an awareness of the questions
to be asked in the full survey. As it stands, however, the consultation
exercise can only generate anecdotal evidence. The sample to be
interviewed should be drawn from:
1. The purchaser/user of GSS publications.
2. The membership of the Statistics Users'
Groups and similar bodies.
These two can be supplemented by lists held
by the ONS and other government departments.
The questionnaire needs to be fully structured
and to probe for each publication into the precise tables which
are used and the purpose for which they are used. Attitudes to
the main determinantsdetail, timeliness, etcneed
to be collected using rating scales, not open ended questions.
The results then need to be analysed by each type of user. All
this is just standard market research practice, but using these
survey methods is considerably more expensive than the present
consultation process. If we are serious, however, about identifying
and evaluating user attitudes and requirements in the form in
which the responses can be converted into product improvementchanges
in national statistics in line with user (market) needsthen
such surveys are essential.
The use of the Internet to invite comments has
enormous potential but, again, for the moment would only seem
capable of generating random observations.
The Framework Document is cautious"the
aims and objectives will be taken forward within the resources
made available", and the Minister, at the press launch, when
asked the question "all this looks rather costly" replied:
"we are not anticipating major changes in the budget. In
fact, National Statistics is a process of actually assuring higher
quality and greater trust, but does not involve a massive budgetary
cost". Are we seeing a particularly brazen example of political
equivocation, or when the time comes will the Treasury accept
that the transition from Official to National will inevitably
lead to increased expenditure? There is certainly plenty of scope
for increases. The ONS budget is only around £150 million
and it is one of the most under resourced "National Statistics
Institutes" in the EU. Only Greece, Spain and Portugal have
a lower staff cost per head of the population than the UK, while
countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark are
one-third higher. On a straight staff count, France has just over
twice (8,141) and Germany over two and a half times (9,752) as
many employees as the UK (3,760). These comparisons are for 1998-99
and are derived from an annual Eurostat report on staffing and
The UK budget for National Statistics could
be doubled and still not be expensive or represent more than the
smallest of Treasury small change.
The CSO, when first set up, was directly responsible
to the Prime Minister, a position it held until the Pickford report
in 1989, when it was transferred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
There was a certain logic in this move while the CSO was predominantly
macro economic, but the enlargement to the ONS, and now to National
Statistics, makes the link inappropriate. There are precedents.
Statistics Sweden has jut been moved from the Finance to the Justice
Ministry, subtitled the Ministry for Democracy. There are similarities
between the impartial administration of the law and the impartial
control of the basic statistics that define and measure the government
policies that influence our everyday lives, so perhaps the idea
is not so far fetched. Consideration should at least be given
to a return home to the Cabinet Office.
The relationship between the National Statistician
and Statistics Commission is not entirely clear. Both are given
responsibility for determining user views. The relationship between
the National Statistician and User Groups is straightforward.
User Groups are the customers and the "theme" working
groups the product managers. This is the detailed level at which
product improvement and development takes place.
The relationship between the Commission and
Users, however, is not straightforward. In setting up National
Statistics, the Government favoured the small supervisory body
rather than the Grand Council representing all user sectors. The
Statistics Commission represents the interests of users rather
than being representative of users, so instead of a duologue between
users and the National Statistician we have a triologue, hopefully
more in tune with the harmony of a trinity than the antagonism
of the eternal triangle. The Commission is charged in the White
Paper with reporting within six months on its plans for consulting
users and we look forward with great interest to the description
of the "machinery for covering the interests of User Groups".
As we noted earlier, the face to face debate on the needs takes
place between the theme groups and the users under the aegis of
the National Statistician. The role that users would appreciate
from the Commission is the endorsement of such jointly derived
plans and their support for any budget increases required to implement
them, together with the facility to appeal to the Commission should
those direct discussions not generate the results sought by the
users. To undertake this role the Commission will need access
to expertise and the User Groups are an obvious source. Consideration
should be given to setting up a formal advisory structure with
representatives from each of the User Groups and other user constituencies.
The problem with the Grand Council approach is that it is too
big to reach decisions, a situation normally resolved in practice
by creating a small executive. The UK Statistics Commission has
the reverse problem. It needs to develop a root structure to tap
down into the user market and it would seem sensible to build
on the already strong and well developed user community. The prescription
given in our Green Paper evidence is for the creation of a Statistics
Users' Forumthrough an extension of the present structure
of the SUC and its Groups. The SUC was set up because there was
no formal link between Government statisticians and the Users.
Now that the Commission has been given that legal requirement
to interface between the National Statistician and the Users,
the SUC is technically redundant.
The following points are a user based assessment
of the developments deriving from the transition of official statistics
for government to National Statistics for both the public and
the government. Some are obviously the responsibility of the National
Statistician or the Commission, but we are operating in very grey
areas and there is considerable scope for discussion between the
two parties about who does what.
1. Hold a National Statistics Week
A target date to meet (Summer 2002) is a good
discipline. We have an exciting message to get across to the public
and this will provide exactly the focus needed to bring all the
2. Exploit existing statistics as fully as
There is a wealth of valuable under utilised
data that is not being fully used. We need to raise awareness
and improve access using the latest information technology.
3. Build on an historical position
UK official statistics under Sir Claus Moser
were well on the way to a de facto national statistical
service with the creation of the BSO and OPCS, the publication
of Social Trends and plans for a mid-term census in 1975.
The quarterly Business Monitor series sold half a million copies
a year (the PRODCOM equivalent is around 30,000). National conferences
to draw attention to the value of statistics in management decision
making were organised with The Times newspaper, and a train
mounted exhibition of Government statistics toured the country
for 11 weeks, playing to 7,000 delegates. A Guide to Official
Statistics was produced, which won a Library Association award.
In several areas we are still not back to the position we left
in the late 1970s.
4. Absorb international ethos
The last 20 years have seen significant developments
in other countries. The Canadians, under Ivan Fellegi, are not
the only country to have thought out and implemented the role
of statistics for users. The Dutch, the Danes and the Finns have
all developed exciting initiatives and Eurostat has become a virtual
treasure house of comparative reports and theme studies. The George
Als report is a classic. Attempts have been made to provide cost
benefit reviews, and research units set up to study problem areas.
The latest was a unit set up a few weeks ago to study the trade
cycle. The annual conferences of the International Association
for Official statistics have provided an excellent focus for many
of these developments. Looking at them over time, there is an
interesting shift of emphasis. In the early 90s the pressure was
on marketing and selling statistics. Now the overwhelming mood
is for statistics as a public good.
5. Establish framework for interfacing with
Both the National Statistician and the Commission
are charged with consulting users. Exactly how do they divide
the responsibilities up between themselves? The link between the
User Groups and the Theme Groups is relatively straightforward,
but the mechanism for consultation between the Commission and
Users urgently needs to be established. As was mentioned under
Governance above, the effectiveness of the Commission as the User's
champion requires a formal framework that provides the Commission
with continuous access to the expertise required not only to properly
assess the report from the National Statistician, but also to
provide its own initiatives.
6. Devise a research programme to identify
user requirements and attitudes
Consultation has limited value if product development
and attitudes are to be properly evaluated. A full scale survey
is needed to take account of the high degree of market segmentation
and to generate actionable results, ie specific changes to specific
7. Carry out product audit
What use is made of each publication? Here we
should include government departments among the users. Are there
any other examples like the General Household Survey without a
8. Develop and publish criteria for National
Just what is it that defines "National"
and what are the mechanisms for bringing statistics within the
national umbrella? Several possibilities are discussed below.
9. Set up a research facility
To identify both the ongoing and
emerging policy issues. Explore links with other organisations
such as ESRC Throw the debate open to the public through the Internet.
To provide a rapid response to issues
that suddenly ariseBSE, fuel prices, rail safety, immigrationbringing
together at least the available official statistics and ideally
adding data from other reputable sources.
To examine business decisions and
internal information flows in order to determine how best to tap
those flows and develop the statistics management needs to provide
the market perspective to their internal company data. The ideal
would be a System of Business Accounts based on the annual company
To keep a check on the misuse of
statistics and write appropriate letters to the press or take
other suitable action. The ideal would be a Statistics Standards
Authority along the lines of the Advertising Standards Authority,
but that is probably impractical, so the best we can look for
is react quickly to the worst abuses.
10. Establish relationship with official organisations
The National Audit Office, the various regulatory
bodies such as OFWAT and many other organisations at regional
as well as national level produce and use statistics. How should
they fit into National Statistics?
11. Integrate departmental surveys
A large number of surveys are carried out every
year in a wide variety of sectors. They need co-ordinating and
12. Review private sector surveys
To determine the reason behind them and the
extent to which they can be incorporated either under National
Statistics or some new hybrid. There are, for example three House
Price Indicesby Nationwide, the Halifax, and the Land Registry.
The problem is that they are not always consistent and the DETR
is developing its own improved version. Salary surveys are much
more widespread and often of dubious quality, yet a study of comparative
incomes is of great importance to a large number of people. It
is a topic that needs more critical attention. Timeliness is a
key element in statistics and the private sector has developed
a wide variety of trend surveys because the official statistics
are not sufficiently timely. Is there scope for National Statistics
versions designed specially to meet this demand for timely short
Attitude surveys are also widespread and of
variable quality. Are there any partnership possibilities with
13. Develop marketing plan
Not only to inform users of availability, but
also to raise the profile of statistics as an essential element
in public debate and for the improvement of industrial competitiveness
14. Develop form filling burden/benefit balance
Only 2 per cent of forms that companies complete
are for statistics and these, in fact, are among the few areas
in which there is a direct payback to the company in useful data.
Even the Armstrong-Rees report found very little objection to
form filling, and the Whitting report on trade statistics recorded
the message that a large proportion of respondents were prepared
to pay the government to keep collecting the detailed trade figures.
15. Develop programmes for culture change
Meeting the needs of users outside government
requires a very different approach to the traditional commitment
to meeting only government needs, both in the nature of the statisticsthe
need for disaggregation rather than aggregationand in the
approach to product development. Historically most changes have
occurred as a result of international requirements (especially
for Eurostat) or a specific government requirement such as new
forms of the RPI. The market outside government is both varied
and largely inarticulate, requiring an active product development
policy based on market research as part of the full marketing
16. Devise priority criteria
With national statistics as a virtually free
commodity the problem is potentially unlimited demand. There is
no market mechanism to regulate supply and demand through price,
so it would be helpful for users to know the ground rules for
determining the priorities between competing claims.
17. Publish list of Government targets
Together with statistics available to monitor
progress and plans for developing the relevant statistics where
there are gaps.
18. Review Government legislation
Lawyers and lobbyists should not be the only
people going through new legislation with the proverbial fine
tooth comb. There is also the need to determine the potential
statistical requirement for monitoring the outcomes of that legislation
and including those costs in the Act.
19. Decide the right home for National Statistics
Should it be moved from the Treasury. If so,
where? In Sweden, the Statistics Office has just been relocated
from the Finance Ministry to the Ministry for Democracy (see discussion
under Governance above).
The Government has taken a bold initiative in
setting up a National Statistics service that facilitates democratic
debate and provides the public with the basis not only for entering
into the discussion of major policy issues, but also passing judgement
on the performance of Government itself. The only real cloud on
the horizon is budgets. The change from "Official" to
"National" Statistics, if it is to have any real meaning,
will require extra expenditure. We have crossed the Rubicon. Whether
we advance slowly or rapidly will depend on the funds made available.
As a not entirely light hearted footnote, we
will know that National Statistics has come of age as a truly
independent force when, in response to a statistically backed
argument, the Prime Minister feels as frustrated as Disraeli,
and repeats or rephrases that famous quotation.
30 October 2000