The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been told that it needs to shape up and deliver substantial improvements, in an official report into the statistics-gathering agency’s performance.
Sir Charles Bean, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, was asked by the Chancellor, George Osborne, to conduct a review of the ONS’s output in July, amid widespread concerns about the quality of its work. In his interim report, which was published on Wednesday, Sir Charles, now a professor of economics the London School of Economics, said the ONS needs to be “more intellectually curious, and self-critical, as well as better at engaging with its customers”. In a criticism of the attitude of ONS staff, Sir Charles said “they need to embrace, rather than resist, change”.
Sir Charles, who stepped down from the Bank in 2014, agreed with the many ONS critics who said the quality of its work declined after the government relocated the agency from London to Newport in 2007, a move that prompted the departure of many of its senior staff.
Sir Charles said the move to Wales had had a “significant – though not necessarily permanent – detrimental effect on the capability of the ONS”. The report added that there was no point in reversing the decision, because this would lead to the loss of staff who did not want to move to London. But it did recommend the ONS should now build up its London profile.
Another recommendation is that the ONS should work in more experimental ways with experts from business and academia, in order to develop new methods of capturing the growth of an increasingly digital and cross-border economy.
The report said the ONS should “be constantly horizon scanning, delving into emerging economic trends, and conducting one-off studies on the impacts of these trends on its statistics”.
The report criticises other Government departments for a “cultural reluctance” to sharing data with the ONS and the “cumbersome nature” of the present framework governing the sharing of such data.
It proposes a “presumption that all publicly-held data is available to the ONS for the purpose of producing economic statistics”. The Bean findings, particularly the criticisms of the ONS’s attitudes to change, will make uncomfortable reading for its leadership.
Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, which oversees the ONS, welcomed the report: “This review sets out a bold vision for the future of economic statistics.
“We look forward to the final report, and will consider its conclusions carefully in preparing our plans for the coming years” he said.
Sir Charles’s final report is due to be delivered at the 2016 Budget.
Bank of England staff, along with many City of London analysts, have long grumbled in private about the ONS’s output.
In 2013, the Bank’s Governor, Mark Carney, compared the output of the agency unfavourably with that of the Canadian statistics agency, singling out the ONS statistics on business investment, which he felt were implausible. The statistics were subsequently revised up.
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