Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


19 MARCH 2008

  Q20  Dr Turner: To what extent does the UK Statistical Service sample surveys rather than conducting national registers, as most countries do—national databases?

  Ms Dunnell: For some purposes we need registers, and we have registers. For example, we have in ONS, and maintain for use across Government, a register of businesses in the UK, which we use to produce statistics and also of course to use as a sampling frame for all the business surveys that feed into the national accounts and balance of payments and things like that. Very often, because one of the great advances in the 20th century was the development of sampling, the statistical theories about sampling, it is much more cost-effective to carry out a sample, take the sample and collect the information from them, and then make an estimate. You could then say quite precisely within which boundaries your estimate is likely to fall. For many, many purposes, this is what we do, because it is cost-effective and quicker, and it is often higher quality because you are collecting the information for a statistical purpose, whereas with quite a lot of registers and administrative registers, for example, the information is collected for administrative purposes and may not be of sufficient quality for the kind of statistics that we produce.

  Q21  Dr Turner: Where do consultants fit in to the government's statistical work; to what extent do you employ them; and, when you do employ them, who determines the methodology and reviews their work?

  Ms Dunnell: We do not use consultants very much for the actual statistical work. Where we do use consultants is for quite a lot of the IT side of things. We are often trying to develop things when we have not got the right skills. On the other hand, we do have contracts with academics quite often to do things like peer reviews, as Mike has mentioned, but also to carry out a particular type of analysis or to help us carry out development work. For example, we are working at the moment on planning a new major survey of disability in the community, and we are using an academic on a contract to help us develop that, partly because he used to work for us and has a lot of expertise in this field, but partly because we do not have that particular skill ourselves. Also, of course, we work extensively with organisations like ESRC and will often put out to contract pieces of work, for example, in relation to the census, when we usually get a university contract in collaboration with the ESRC to provide services to academic users on the census. Similarly, we have a contract with Southampton University to run an MSc, which many people in the GSS go on. So there are a wide variety of those things. We also use contracts for some of our data collection on occasion.

  Q22  Dr Turner: It occurs to me that you obviously must make fairly heavy use of IT.

  Ms Dunnell: Yes.

  Q23  Dr Turner: You know, of course, the disastrous history of governments of all colours in promoting large national IT schemes. Do you get involved by the Government, or do you have any input to Government considerations of large-scale IT schemes, because they must be relevant to you as presumably you would want to access information from them from time to time; so are you consulted?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes. In fact, every Government department has something called a chief information officer, which is a bit of a misnomer, but basically head of IT, as I call them. The head of the whole Government—there is a head of profession, rather like myself—who works in the Cabinet Office, and he runs a council of all the heads across Government, in the same way that I run my head of profession department meetings and so on for statistics; so we are very plugged in to that. In fact, one of the things that the CIO council has done is to create a shared service for basic IT infrastructure in Government departments, and we were one of the pilots for that; and indeed just signed up to it. Our basic infrastructure is actually moving to this service called Flex at the end of this month. We do get very involved in that. It is for providing all our basic telephony and equipment and storage and security and so on. The thing that we keep very much to ourselves, and will continue to do, is all the work we do on statistical computing, which involves this worldwide sharing of good practice and expertise and development about how to best take that forward. On things like data access, we are very plugged in, and I am a member of Gus O'Donnell's security advisory team, which is advising the whole of government—and Mike is my substitute on it—about how to do much, much better with data security. Of course, we have all had to do audits of our security arrangements and so on. Given that keeping personal data confidential is absolutely at the fundamental core of our business, we are quite active in advising and helping to get the standards across Government right.

  Q24  Dr Turner: You have not lost any disks?

  Ms Dunnell: We have not, no.

  Dr Gibson: How would they know?

  Q25  Mr Boswell: While we are thinking about IT, presumably this means that you or collectors working for you make increasing use of direct inputting of electronic information on site. Perhaps you can comment on that, and, if so, does that lead to improvements in accuracy as well as timeliness, and also on the security side is that equally satisfactory?

  Ms Dunnell: Doing data collection using electronic methods has many, many advantages, one of which is that as you enter the data you can do all kinds of checks on it and the signposting to the next question is all automatic; so you tend to get much better quality data. We have very, very strict security arrangements for the transferring of data into the office. One of the reasons why we are going quite slowly with Internet collection is because of the security side of things; we have to be absolutely sure that data coming down the line cannot be interfered with or looked at in any way.

  Q26  Mr Cawsey: I would like to ask about how Government policy should be more evidence-based, and the role that you can play in that. You are probably aware of Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot's piece on the tiger that is not, where they argue that the tendency to ignore the need for statistical verification is only now beginning to change in the UK. Do you agree that this verification has not until now played a part in the formulation of Government policy?

  Ms Dunnell: I do not necessarily agree with them, no, because the Government's statistical service produces an enormous range of statistics, which are used across the piece every day in Government departments, local authorities and all kinds of bodies for planning, evaluation and all kinds of parts of the policy process. I am a great admirer of Andrew Dilnot, I have to say, and he has picked out some examples from a very, very wide range of statistics to make some very important points. I think that some of the stuff he has written in there about variability and so on will get everybody to read it because it is very, very important. However, I think it is very, very obvious now that statistics are absolutely vital for government policy at all stages. We see many examples, and most recently in the budget speech in the work that has just come from the prime Minister's Delivery Unit, looking at the future of policy. That is a statistical picture about what is going on in society and the economy and is at the forefront of thinking about policy development. This does not mean, however, that this is perfect in every case and in every department, because a lot of policy-making is highly political and often happens at great speed. Our role, and one of my ambitions, is to make sure that we can improve the impact and influence of statistics and statisticians in all sorts of Government policy-making at both national and local level.

  Q27  Mr Cawsey: What I am interested in is a bit chicken-and-egg really. Is it that the Minister or the department will say to you, "We have got this whiz of an idea for a policy, so give us all the statistics to back it up"; or do you go with a load of statistics and say, "This policy needs to be changed"?

  Ms Dunnell: Do you want to try that one, Mike!

  Mr Hughes: I think the syndrome that you outline probably did prevail fifteen or twenty years ago, but, as Karen has said, we try extremely hard to get involved in the policy process as early as possible.

  Q28  Mr Cawsey: Do you ever create it, is what I am asking; do you ever start the process and say, "Look at these statistics; we are highlighting ... ."

  Ms Dunnell: Yes.

  Mr Hughes: Yes. When I was head of profession in transport, we were producing a range of statistics for the board and actually chose to challenge some of the things that were happening on transport policy at the time. Is it right to be spending so much money on rail safety when probably there are five people killed a year, and yet eighty people a day die on the roads? It is that kind of dichotomy.

  Q29  Graham Stringer: It did not change the policy, did it?

  Mr Hughes: No, it did not, I would agree with you; but at the end of the day we were putting those points up to the top of the office.

  Q30  Mr Boswell: I am often saying privately that I do not think social trends arise and hit us in the face until it is too late. Are you really in the forefront, in your advice to Ministers, in being able to spot social trends that previously perhaps had not been anticipated, and then actually drawing their attention to it hopefully getting them to do something about it before it is too late?

  Ms Dunnell: I think it is a very important part of our role. For example, something that the ONS is responsible for on behalf of all other Government departments is the monitoring and estimating the size and structure of population. For example, the aging of the population is a very important phenomenon, which needs to be taken into account in every bit of policy that happens both nationally and locally. I think that actually statisticians have done a great deal to make sure that everybody does not forget about the aging of the population, because it is very, very important. That is a very good example. Similarly, on issues like the situation with family status, the whole evolving, monitoring system for looking at, for example, the big changes that we have had in marriage and cohabitation patterns came very much from the statisticians attempting to measure a rapidly changing situation, and then making those new statistics part of what everybody now accepts as something that we update all the time. There are similar things on the economy, which is much more difficult in some ways because it changes quite rapidly; but again we feel very strongly that it is up to us to draw attention to things that are happening in the economy, which people may not be putting enough emphasis on.

  Q31  Dr Gibson: Do you have an input into the growth percentages of the economy?

  Ms Dunnell: Yes—well, we produce all that every quarter, yes—all of the national accounts, yes.

  Q32  Mr Cawsey: If a statistician finds a piece of information and passes it on to the Government and then finds it is ignored, what can they do to correct that?

  Ms Dunnell: That is very similar to the thing that Mike said: if you are a statistician in a department, or in my case in ONS, and you feel that policy is not making enough or taking enough account of some change or something which you think is quite important, then it is one of our professional responsibilities to keep putting that piece of information in place.

  Q33  Mr Cawsey: But if you keep putting it into a red box, but it never gets any further, would you put it into a red to eventually?

  Ms Dunnell: We try to get all of our statistics, to be honest, into every kind of newspaper—that goes back to my answers to some of your earlier questions: in my view, the more that everybody in our community understands and appreciates statistics and their usefulness, the better. We would not do a special press release, particularly aimed at any particular newspaper; but we would take every opportunity, within our normal publication process, to draw attention to those changes that we feel are important.

  Q34  Mr Cawsey: What if it was the other way round? What if a journalist approached you and said: "The Government has just announced this, this and this; what is the statistical evidence for it?" and you knew there was none, would you say that there is none?

  Ms Dunnell: I am trying to think of an example. We give all kinds of advice to people all the time over the telephone. Personally I do not think—and I do not think most statisticians in the Government's Statistical Service, would make a judgment like that because it would be quite dangerous. What they would try to do is say, "Here is the statistical picture of something as we see it" and present the thing afresh.

  Q35  Dr Harris: Dangerous to health, dangerous to career—what do you mean by "dangerous"—to give an honest, open view?

  Ms Dunnell: Because we try not to comment particularly, and one of the statistician's basic codes of practice is not to comment about things political. Sometimes, if you have made a comment about a particular policy, it can be interpreted as political. Our task is to be objective, full of integrity, and apolitical.

  Q36  Graham Stringer: Can we come back to the point about the large amount of money that the previous Deputy Prime Minister wanted to spend on transportation warning systems all over the rail system. It was very high profile. John Prescott was very keen on it. How, as a real example, did you deal with the information you had which said, "spend this money on road improvement schemes or whatever and it would save more lives"? How did you deal with that?

  Mr Hughes: It is going back quite a way now, so I have to think about it more in the abstract than remembering the detail.

  Graham Stringer: I think the detail would be much more fun.

  Q37  Dr Gibson: Could you send us the detail?

  Mr Hughes: The way that we were dealing with these sorts of things was to put together a regular briefing note, a package of material called "transport trends" that would go out regularly to the management board for them to look at. In that particular case the decision was very much swayed by political imperatives and that was why it ended up the way it did.

  Q38  Graham Stringer: I think what Ian was asking about—in that situation where the statistics pointed in a different policy direction, would you have gone to the Sun or the Mirror and said: "Here are the statistics; look them up yourself; this policy will cost lives"?

  Mr Hughes: We are civil servants; we work for Ministers in departments, and that is the process by which we work. I do not think it would comply with the kinds of principles that Karen has just outlined that any of us would do that sort of thing. That information is not buried in the depths of departments. That is analysis that anybody outside can equally do.

  Dr Gibson: You must forgive us if we are slightly jaundiced about getting information! We spend a lot of our time trying to get information from people in Government departments.

  Q39  Dr Iddon: I want to move on to targets. Do you have any role in the formulation and measurement of targets the Government sets?

  Ms Dunnell: Again, it is quite varied between departments whether or not statisticians get involved. One of the things that we are trying quite hard to do now is to ensure that statisticians do get involved and that they get involved at the early stages of the formulation of targets. One of the particular problems of course is that people set targets that are quite difficult to measure, and then quite a lot of short-term and sometimes not very well thought-through things happen in order to measure the progress of targets, and these are the kinds of things where, if statisticians do get involved early on, they can be avoided. It is very important.

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