A vision of the future - in the official figures

The head of the Government statistical service is a staunch defender of its integrity, writes Diane Coyle

Tim Holt, head of the Government's statistical service since July, has inherited an unfinished agenda. It is an ambitious one: to rebuild public confidence in official statistics.

According to his predecessor, the ebullient Australian Bill Maclennan, the credibility of official statistics has been seriously undermined by the public perception that the unemployment figures were distorted by political pressures. Dozens of changes in the rules for claiming unemployment benefit have steadily pushed the total downwards.

Mr Maclennan insisted, before he quit the job to return to Australia, that the UK must switch to an internationally-accepted measure of unemployment - based on a monthly survey. His successor has brought this change close to fruition.

Two weeks ago Dr Holt announced the results of a Central Statistical Office study of the costs and benefits of alternative techniques for collecting the superior survey-based figures.

The statisticians' preferred method would cost an extra pounds 7-8m on top of the pounds 5-6m already spent on a quarterly survey.

After a period of consultation the CSO will make its recommendations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The decision about whether this country will have credible monthly unemployment figures to supplement the quarterly ones will rest with Kenneth Clarke.

Dr Holt is careful to echo the ministerial view that any change would have to give value for money. ''Without any cost constraint people always want more information,'' he said, adding: ''It is taxpayers' money. We need to be sure it is spent wisely.''

However, his own opinion is pretty clear: ''Direct government expenditure on labour market issues is pounds 12-13bn. You have to put the cost of a monthly survey in that context. We have a responsibility to put in place the information for those billions to be managed properly.''

Dr Holt insists that there is no undue political interference with official statistics. Even so, he says, public confidence is something that always has to be nurtured.

He gives every sign of being a staunch defender of the integrity of the Government Statistical Service he now heads. ''Reliable statistics are a major cornerstone of democracy,'' he stated.

Mr Maclennan cast a shadow over his own reputation as a beacon of integrity by suppressing just over a year ago an article in Social Trends, one of the CSO's flagship annual publications, by Muriel Nissel, one of its former editors.

Mrs Nissel's article criticised political influence on official statistics during the 1980s. She said Mrs Thatcher's Governments had cut spending - especially on politically sensitive social statistics - so much that their quality suffered.

Writing in the Independent, she said: ''Unless the Government is prepared to support a statistical service which publishes uncomfortable as well as comfortable facts, a democratic society will not have confidence in it.''

Dr Holt said: ''It has been government priority for the past seven years to strengthen the statistical information available for the management of the economy.''

Yet managing draconian cuts in running costs at the same time as the CSO's forthcoming merger with the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys will be one of the first tests of his skills as a defender of our statistics.

Like other government departments, the new Office of National Statistics will have to slash running costs by up to one-fifth.

The merger itself will allow some savings, and Dr Holt argues that using new technology in gathering and processing statistics is an important source of efficiency gains over time. ''We can maintain the level of quality and output,'' he said.

He does not see selling statistics as a big source of future income. The ONS will not turn into a commercial organisation, although the existing process of publishing some data through commercial partnerships will continue. He also mentions the possibility of charging for special analyses.

''Our fundamental priority is to get the statistics used. We will not be exploiting our monopoly position in holding the data,'' Dr Holt says. Statistics are a public good, he argues.

His more immediate priority is to make the 1 April merger a success. The management task is immense. Dr Holt, a former professor of statistics and Vice-Chancellor of Southampton University, has to cope with combining two big government departments without making either feel aggrieved, creating a new identity and achieving public recognition for the new organisation, moving to a new building and installing new systems.

In the longer run, he has a vision: he sees bringing together the most important economic and social statistics for the first time as an unparallelled opportunity. ''It will be the first opportunity in this country to paint a complete and coherent picture,'' he said.

A researcher wanting to know everything about, say, single parents or the elderly - from their benefits and incomes to their health and housing conditions - will find the information easily under one roof.

A business planning an investment will find regional figures on everything from wages and unemployment to demographic patterns.

The figures are already there, but hard to access - the separate pieces of the jigsaw scattered around several government departments.

Even more ambitiously, Dr Holt said, new information technology could eventually be a picture painted by the users of the statistics themselves, not an official identikit: ''Historically, we have collected, designed and published our product. In future there will be much more access to databases that allow users to design the statistical output they want.''

This democratic vision, distant as it is, would be the ultimate guarantee of freedom from political interference in the uses and abuses of statistics. Whether the resources and political will to realise Dr Holt's vision will be there is another question.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Helpdesk Analyst

£23000 per annum + pension and 22 days holiday: Ashdown Group: An established ...

Senior Helpdesk Analyst / Service Desk Co-ordinator

£27000 per annum + pension, 22 days holiday: Ashdown Group: An established ind...

Senior Pensions Administrator

£23000 - £26000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Corporate Actions Administrator / Operations Administrator

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Corporate Actions Administrator / Operations Admini...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London