In stats we trust – an interview with David Norgrove

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The RSS was delighted at the appointment of one of its fellows, Sir David Norgrove, to the position of UKSA chair back in March 2017 when Sir Andrew Dilnot stepped down. We spoke to David a couple of months after his appointment to ask him about his plans as he gets to grips with his role.

David is no stranger to the inner workings of government; he was former private secretary (1985-88) to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and after spending 16 years with Marks & Spencer he became the inaugural chair of the Pensions Regulator in 2005 and chaired the Low Pay Commission (2009-16).

He also led a review of the family justice system in 2010, which not only led to his knighthood in 2016 (for services to the low paid and family justice) but also stoked an interest in how government gathers data and uses it. ‘What I realised during the review,’ he says, ‘is how poor the data were, on what we are doing with all these families and children; how little information there was on what works. Different areas of the country do different things; data was collected by different institutions and not put together.’ Working with statisticians in the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education, David started to build an evidence base by connecting up the databases.

This meant that when the role at the UK Statistics Authority came up, David already had a clear idea of the importance of statistics and their role in decision making. He is also fully aware of the challenges that government statistics have faced over recent years. ‘ONS had been under invested in for a long time, it was a rather neglected corner of government,’ he says. ‘I remember the excellent material that was put together by the CSO and OPCS (former incarnations of ONS) but it had been stripped down - and the move to Newport led to a lot of upheaval.’

David acknowledges the work put in by those involved since the creation of the UK Statistics Authority in 2007 and says his first priority is ‘carrying on the really good work of Michael Scholar, Andrew Dilnot and John Pullinger’s predecessors in rebuilding capacity and modernising the infrastructure.’

But he also knows that the organisation needs to become more outward-facing and able to anticipate what kinds of data decision makers and the public will need. ‘In terms of prep work, there’s a sense of us all, including ONS, doing more to plough the ground before these things come along.’ He cites the ONS compendium of data published for the Scottish referendum as a good example of this.

David is keen to get statisticians involved in explaining the numbers they produce. ‘My sense is that statisticians over the last 30 years have lost out to economists,’ he says. ‘You get lots of economists on the Today programme but rarely get statisticians - why is that? The people who put the numbers together should have the best starting point in how they fit in the overall picture. There ought to be a role for them in explaining the numbers to people.’

‘Providing a degree of commentary on the numbers that are published is all part of being more active and less passive,’ he goes on. ‘If you look ahead to what people are going to need, you are starting to shape the debate.’

David also intends to continue taking to task those who misuse data. One of his first acts as UKSA chair was to send out letters to all of the party leaders as the UK election campaign kicked off, urging them to use statistics ‘in the public interest’. ’It’s very important,’ he says, about calling out bogus claims. And if any misleading numbers are used? ‘I’d be very clear about it.’

The UKSA is also working with other like-minded bodies, including the RSS, Full Fact and the House of Commons library, on keeping public debate free from misleading data and downright lies. ‘We should work together as much as we possibly can, because we have the same objectives in mind,' he says.

Public trust in official statistics is relatively high, according to a recent report by NatCen (85-90% as opposed to the government’s use of statistics, which got just 26%). However, David is acutely aware of the fragility of that trust. ‘I wonder if you took an individual number that’s being bandied about by government – when people are thinking about that number do they draw that distinction? It is actually quite a subtle one day-to-day so I think it’s important for our democracy to try and get that 26% up. And that’s where my role comes in, in terms of rapping people over the knuckles if they misuse data.’

He is also aware of the erosion of public trust that practices such as allowing pre-release access to statistics can invoke. At the time of our interview he said the RSS position to end pre-release access to politicians and their advisers was ‘a big issue which we – the board – very much support’. This was confirmed just a few weeks later, when the National Statistician John Pullinger announced that all pre-release access to ONS statistics would cease (as stated in this letter).

Another relatively recent development in government statistics has been the creation of the Office for Statistics Regulation, which carries out the regulatory function of UKSA. While David acknowledges that it is ‘unusual’ for a board to oversee both production and regulation functions, he insists that the regulatory function is not compromised.

‘From what I’ve seen, Ed Humpherson and the regulatory team are maybe even tougher on the producers than they would be if they were separate,’ he says. ‘ And my sense is that they are actually very good at knowing where the bodies are buried because they have a degree of insider knowledge.’

A key event due to take place during David’s tenureship as UKSA chair will be the next UK census in 2021. The next census will be instrumental in finding out how successful a move to sourcing census information from administrative data will be. ‘Clearly the move to administrative data is both an opportunity and essential, given the declining rate of response to a lot of surveys,’ he says. While the early signs from the administrative census are ‘very promising’, David is well aware of the challenges ahead. ‘We are going to have a trade-off between accuracy from administrative data but more frequency,’ he says. ‘There are some questions that we can’t answer at the moment through admin data – such as sexual orientation - because they don’t necessarily get collected. So we need to decide whether we add questions like that to something else that government’s asking about - or do a separate survey.’

Another important consideration is validating the administrative data. At the moment, ONS has control over its own surveys. ‘That’s going to change over the next five years as we rely more on administrative data because other companies or departments will be providing the data,’ David explains.

Is this likely to change the role of the statistician? ‘It’s going to get more complicated I think, because of having to use data created by other people for their purposes. You’ve got suppliers who have their own interests, you’re not just sending out a survey and asking someone to fill it in.’

When asked what he would like to see during his tenure over the next five years, David emphasises his key priorities. ‘I’d like to see continued progress with statistics production to give data that is more responsive - and greater trust in that data,’ he says. He also cites the importance of better data - the reason he took on the role in the first place. ‘Better data for the people making decisions,’ he says, ‘helps them understand what’s going on.’

Official Statistics UK Statistics Authority David Norgrove

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