Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
19 MARCH 2008
Q40 Dr Gibson: Do you do CO2 and
greenhouse gas emissions?
Ms Dunnell: We do not in ONS,
but the GSS does them, yes.
Q41 Dr Iddon: So things can only
get better! Is it possible, using statistics, to measure the quality
and output of public services?
Ms Dunnell: Yes, in many ways.
As you probably know, we have a unit in ONS that has been set
up to try to measure the productivity of public services, partly
because the traditional method in the national accounts is to
say that output for example of the NHS is equal to the financial
input, and a big review was done several years ago which recommended
that we should use statistics and research methods much more effectively
to look at other ways of doing it. Therefore, a unit has been
set up, which has looked quite thoroughly now at education and
health and the administration of social security and so on. It
is developing this with the departments in question, which also
extensively use academic colleagues and help them to devise much
better ways of measuring the output of health or education services
and the quality of them; but it is quite challenging.
Q42 Dr Iddon: The Statistics Commissioner
has suggested that the emphasis on the use of statistics as performance
indicators and targets has politicised your professional area,
and also suggested that we are trying to push the boundaries too
far. What would you say to that?
Ms Dunnell: I certainly do not
believe that it has politicised statistics. I think it has led
to the development of statistics that may not be national statistics,
and the use of statistical information about what is actually
happening in public services, which is sometimes quite difficult
to interpretI am not quite sure what your question about
boundaries meant, to be honest.
Q43 Dr Iddon: It is about putting
statistics beyond their own capabilities.
Ms Dunnell: Yes, I think that
there possibly are some examples of that. I think much more likely,
however, is that administrative systems are set up that produce
answers about things, and they are not set up in a proper scientific
and statistical way. We would prefer to get involved in the process
and set up proper systems to produce statistics that everybody
can trust and that are based on proper methodology and codes of
practice and so on.
Q44 Mr Boswell: I think we are familiar
with the fact that targets, or statistics are used as proxies
for an outcome that inevitably has happened.
Ms Dunnell: Yes.
Q45 Mr Boswell: Do you have any evidence
that when a particular statistic or variables are also targets
as proxies for some kind of quality measurement of public service,
they get abused? I am thinking rather of the Goodhart's law about
a monetary aggregate: once it becomes the objective breaking down
because people gain it. Is there any element of this?
Ms Dunnell: I think that is part
of the danger with it. For example, if you take hospital waiting
lists, you can see from a political point of view that it is something
that the population truly understands, because it is one of the
things that everybody who goes into hospital experiences and it
has a great meaning for people. I do think that it is one of those
targets where it is possible for people to work extra hard in
one sense or another in order to meet a target, and that of course
may be the right way to propel different organisational units
into higher levels of activity; but it may not be. That is why
it is very, very important from a national statistics point of
view to make sure that these statistics are produced properlyas
Mike was saying, form some kind of portfolio of statistics about
what is going on in hospitals so that people can make a wider
judgment about it.
Q46 Dr Harris: You just said that
you thought hospital waiting list statistics were widely understood
because everyone experienced waiting lists.
Ms Dunnell: I am sorry, I did
not mean to imply that waiting list statistics were widely understood,
but I think that the notion of being on a waiting list is widely
understood. It has a lot of political meaning.
Q47 Dr Harris: If you take someone
on a waiting list, what relevance is it to how long they wait
how many other people are waiting? They can wait one day and there
could be 2 million people also waiting one day. That would be
2 million people waiting for one day, which would show a fantastically
high-capacity, excellent service. One hundred thousand people
waiting for five yearsmuch lower numbersa bit of
a disaster! The waiting list numbers coming down was what the
target wasor what about maximum waiting time? What relevance
is a maximum waiting time to a non-urgent operation if I have
an urgent cardiac complaint?
Ms Dunnell: I am sorry, I did
not really mean to get into a big debate about it; I am just using
it as an illustration that some targetsI am trying to think
of one at the moment
Q48 Dr Harris: You are not going
to find waiting list ones, are you?
Ms Dunnell: They do not have meaning
to the population to whom they apply.
Q49 Dr Harris: A waiting list is
actually probably the worst thing you could think about for an
individual patient experience.
Ms Dunnell: I would probably entirely
agree with you. I was just using it as an example of something
which at least the public understands. If you have a targetfor
example, the Treasury will have targets probably about the balance
of payments, but not too many people will understand what the
figure means or have any understanding. That was the point that
I was trying to illustrate.
Dr Harris: I will come back to this.
Q50 Dr Iddon: In 2003 the Royal Statistical
Society concluded that performance monitoring in public services
was poorly conducted, and it called for a number of changes including
reporting of measures of uncertainty and of random sampling. Have
any changes been made following that report in 2003 and are any
projected to happen in the future?
Mr Hughes: It is not only the
RSS that made those sorts of comments; the NAO was saying very
similar things, and also the Statistical Commission looked at
this. There is now a much stronger engagement of analysts in these
sorts of processes. It is a political decision as to what the
target should be. Quite often those targets have been in areas
where traditionally statistics have not been collected before,
so there has been a fairly large learning process about how you
can compile statistics from administrative sources. Our traditional
mechanisms have been surveys and things of that sort. There is
a far higher level of engagement now by analysts across the piece.
It may not always be a statistician that is doing it; it could
be a researcher. We belong to a large analytical community in
Government where jobs are interchangeable at times. The exemplification
for this is that certainly with PSAs in the latest 2007 CSR there
is a hope that there will be a senior analyst on the boards looking
at those indicators to make sure that they do have data integrity.
Q51 Dr Iddon: Mike, I think the real
question is, was that 2003 RSS report relevant to your work and
did it help you to see things a little more clearly?
Mr Hughes: I think it did, Dr
Iddon, but not just the RSS one; as I say, the Stats Commission's
report, and the NAO saying very similar things at the same time.
Q52 Mr Boswell: Can we turn to the
user end? I must say that in my limited ministerial career it
was useful to have even a rudimentary knowledge of statistics
at least once or twice in particular! I know that your official
guidelines for measuring statistical quality talk about providing
the user with sufficient information to judge whether or not the
data are of sufficient quality for their intended use. That is
something that you might like to expand on briefly, but are most
civil servants, and indeed dare I say Ministers, statistically
literate enough to understand the messages your statistics carry;
and do you feel it is important that we should encourage them
to do that?
Ms Dunnell: I would have to say
that I think statistical literacy generally in the UKand
that applies to civil servants and politicians and most people
actuallyis very, very low. Nevertheless, our statistics
are scrutinised not only by the statistically illiterate, but
the statistically literate watch everything we do like hawks,
and that is why we have a policy for national statistics where
measures of quality such as competence intervals and information
about sample sizes, et cetera, is placed on the website and is
easily accessible when you are actually using the statistics.
We are now tryingwe have a goal, without a target, to make
sure that when we produce our key statistics we have competence
intervals or some measure around them in press releases and in
the publications. A huge number of people still disregard competence
intervals, I have to say.
Q53 Mr Boswell: I think they do.
I think you are in two minds on this: professionally you are bound
to be cautious because, like a scientist, you are making assertions
which are constrained by competence limits, and so a lot of your
users will not necessarily understand what you say, even if you
explained it to them; and some of them may have a motive for trying
to pick things off the shelf to justify, say, a policy or a target.
How are you going to work at getting those messages fitter for
purpose into the public debate, and into the decision-making process?
How can we make this a less ill-informed dialogue?
Ms Dunnell: One of the ways we
try to do it when we publish any series is to put it in the context
of the past. For example, every month we produce a report on what
is happening in the labour market, and every month we include
a graph which goes back over a few years, so that you can interpret
what is usually tiny changes in employment rates, for example,
and getting a view on a graph over a period of time does help
people to interpret the importance of this month's blip, which
is going to be basically a blip around a point in time. We do
try to do that. We are doing a lot of work trying to improve the
graphs we use and the words we use to describe them. It is by
constantly trying to do that that, hopefully, people will get
used to it.
Q54 Dr Harris: Would you say that
one justification for the fact that the Government Ministers get
statistics some time earlier than everyone else is that it gives
them an interval to understand them, and therefore to not over-interpret
them; and that if they do not use that opportunity there is little
merit in them having statistics in advance?
Ms Dunnell: I personally believe
that we should have any pre-release time very short. The proposal
at the moment that is being consulted on is that it is 24 hours.
From a purely statistical integrity point of view I would prefer
it to be no time at all. It is very much ingrained in our culture,
the notion of pre-release, and if we can get the time cut down
and the number of people that releases go to cut down, we will
make significant progress.
Q55 Dr Harris: I do not blame the
Government for thisI would do exactly the sameput
a spin on statistics. Is it the case that you use that interval
when you are the provider of statistics to say, "This is
what can be said; that is the limit of what can be said"
and written advice saying, "This is what can be said on the
basis of these statistics"? Otherwise, what is the point
from your point of view? I know it is not your preference, but
given there is this pre-release period how are you using that
to ensure that you counter unreasonable spin?
Ms Dunnell: The labour market
is quite a good example of that, and we will probably have to
adapt it when we get new rules in. Basically, ONS produces the
labour market data and has done for ten or so years now, and we
produce the monthly thing. Then we have a pre-briefing with the
stands and the economists from departments that are interested
in the labour market, which is mainly DWP, Treasury, DBERR and
so on. They will come to a briefing with our statisticians, so
that everybody can discuss the meaning of the latest trend in
the context of the trend over the last year or so, so that they
all have an opportunity to think about what these latest changes
may be. Then those people go back and do their own briefing to
their own Minister. That is the thing that everybody finds very,
very useful at the moment, but it does open up the possibility
(a) for leaks and (b) spin. That is why we need to cut the time
Q56 Dr Harris: That was not my question,
was it? I was suggesting why do you not use the time to directly
talk to the special advisors and the press officers about what
you think should or could or could not be saidcould and
could not be said about statistics? Then if it is ignored at least
you have a record for your integrityyou have made a lot
about thatso that you can sleep at night; and if it builds
up you can say, "I resign if this continues". Why do
you not do that?
Ms Dunnell: Because the briefing
mechanism we have, in your words, does that, but it is ONS talking
to the people in departments who do that.
Q57 Mr Boswell: It cannot be negotiation.
Ms Dunnell: It is not a negotiation.
We are trying to get a team of statisticians with a lot of experience
of understanding the labour market and policies around the labour
market to say, "What do these statistics tell us this month?"
Then we get the best advice we can about what the statistics are
Q58 Dr Harris: So you do not have
any interaction with the people who are doing the spinning and
the media briefing and
Ms Dunnell: Well, I
Q59 Dr Harris: Ministers the
line to take, you as statisticians I mean?
Ms Dunnell: In my department,
yes, I have a relationship with my press office. We have a dialogue
about the way that we will present statistics in press releases
and so on, and that is exactly the same as the dialogue that people
returning from our labour market briefing to their departments
will have with their press office.