John Pullinger is a former Royal Statistical Society president and has held the top job in UK official statistics since 2014. As UK National Statistician, he is head of the Government Statistical Service and chief executive of the UK Statistics Authority; the latter role includes responsibility for the Office for National Statistics.
We asked John about his role in measuring the UN's new Sustainable Development Goals, the next census and why more people should join the Royal Statistical Society.
1. What's the best thing about your job?
The best thing about this job, and any job that I have had in the past, is the people that you come into contact with. Particularly in this post, the range of people that I have the opportunity to meet and learn from has been incredible, from interviewers gathering the statistical data we need to people doing innovative research and development based on the statistics and data we produce. It's all about the people, and diversity of thought.
2. You chaired a very important meeting a couple of years ago regarding the UN's Sustainable Development Goals - how do you think the UK is doing in measuring itself by these metrics and do you have a sense of whether other countries will be able to do the same?
The only way we can see whether we are meeting these goals is to measure progress against them. This is no easy task but I think we are making good progress, not just in the UK but also in other countries. In November 2017, we published our first report on measuring the SDGs and to date we have data for 41% of the 232 indicators. We are either developing measures or exploring other data sources available to address the rest. It is absolutely key that we share what we learn with other countries, and indeed we have benefitted too from sharing, as our open source reporting platform for SDGs has been developed in collaboration with the US and both countries are working with their international development teams to share our experience globally.
3. What are the biggest challenges regarding the next census?
The census is by far the largest project we do at the Office for National Statistics. The 2021 Census will be like no other before. It will be the first time the Census is both predominantly online and accompanied by extensive use of administrative data to reimagine the idea of the Census for the 21st century. The biggest challenge is to ensure that the public support us. We need to demonstrate that there are real benefits to them from the insight the census provides and are reassured that data about them is kept confidential and safe. The key success measure for us in all our work is whether it helps people (and the country as a whole) make better decisions about things they care about: schools, health services, transport and so on.
4. What made you decide to abolish pre-release access to official statistics? Was it helped at all by our campaign (where we sent a letter to the Times with 114 signatories)?
From the point of view of statistical integrity, pre-release access to official statistics is a bad idea. I held this view when I was President of the RSS and did not change my mind once I became National Statistician. However, as National Statistician, I am required by law to balance statistical integrity concerns against the needs of Ministers to take action or make an announcement at or shortly after the time of release. Following a detailed review, which included considering the RSS campaign, my decision to abolish pre-release access to ONS statistics was based on balancing these considerations.
5. What do you think about the continued use of RPI for uprating purposes - despite yours and David Norgrove's recommendations on this point?
As I set out to my letter to Sir Andrew Dilnot (then chair of the UK Statistics Authority), I consider that the RPI is not a good measure of inflation and does not have the potential to become one. I strongly discourage the use of RPI as a measure of inflation as there are far superior alternatives. However, RPI is used for a number of legacy purposes, for example, index-linked gilts and we are legally obliged to continue to produce it.
6. As a former RSS president, what do you think are the benefits of RSS membership, in particular for government statisticians?
In recent years the RSS has rediscovered its campaigning origins. The Data Manifesto, and more generally standing up for the role of data and evidence in better decisions, are examples where the RSS has a positive impact on public debate. The more people who join the RSS, including from within the Government Statistical Service and the broader government data and data science community, the stronger this voice will be.