National Statistician responds to criticism of public sector debt measures

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The National Statistician has responded to strong criticism from the Financial Times’ economic editor Chris Giles, who has attacked the way in which the Office for National Statistics measures the UK’s public sector borrowing and has questioned its independence from government.
 
Giles’ criticism refers to an ONS announcement made on 21 February 2013 which sets out how the figures for Public Sector Net Borrowing (PSNBex) will be affected by cash transfers from the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund (BEAPFF) to the treasury.
 
Giles points out that the introduction of PSNBex in 2009 was brought in to show public sector net borrowing but exclude measures taken in the wake of the financial crisis, so as not to distort the underlying state of public sector finances.
 
Giles was also critical of the structure of the body behind this decision, the Public Sector Finances Technical Advisory Group, pointing out that the ONS officials on this body are outnumbered by government officials. ‘It is not independent from ministers’ wishes,’ he concluded. ‘Official figures on the British public finances are no longer to be trusted.’
 
In a letter to the newspaper Jil Matheson, the National Statistician, rebuked the criticism by pointing out that since 1997 UK government finances have been aligned with internationally agreed standards. ‘These provide a clear, trusted basis for the UK’s public finances. To ignore that link risks creating a confusing situation in which the measures of gross debt and deficit prepared under European law included these payments, but the leading domestic UK measure ignored them. This would be very hard to justify’, she said.
 
In response to the criticism of the structure of the Public Sector Finances Technical Advisory Group, she pointed out the group is advisory in nature, and is bound by the Code of Practice for Official Statistics.  She made clear the decisions are her responsibility as National Statistician.  ’It is misleading to imply that the process is in any way tainted by political influence,’ she concluded.
 

Government announce new ‘What Works’ evidence based policy centres

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The government has just announced the creation of four new independent centres that will provide evidence and research to help inform the government’s social policy in a number of areas.
 
Four ‘What Works’ centres will examine issues of key public concern, such as crime, promoting independent ageing, early intervention in childhood and fostering local economic growth.
 
The rationale for the initiative is set out in the following paper: ‘Too often, new public policies are rolled out nationally with little trialling or evaluation,’ it states. ‘In effect, governments experiment on the whole population at once.’
 
The centres will aim to provide accessible information to local authorities, head teachers, police and crime commissioners as well as central government. They will follow a similar model to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which helps develop guidelines and inform policy in the National Health Service, and as of April this year, will take on extra responsibility for social care guidance.
 
Together with NICE and the Sutton Trust’s Education Endowment Foundation – which has created a teaching and learning ‘toolkit’ for schools, the four new centres will form a What Works Network, chaired by a national adviser (to be appointed) who will advise ministers and also explore the merits of creating a role of government chief social scientist.
 
Funding for the new centres will come from a variety of sources. The centre for Local Economic Growth will receive £1million over three years, partly from the Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC). The Better Ageing centre will receive lottery money (tbc) and the Early Intervention Foundation has been allocated £3.5 million of government funding over the next two years. The Crime Reduction centre, to be hosted at the recently launched College of Policing, will tender for academic partners with the ESRC over the summer of 2013.
 
The RSS supports the creation of these new centres. ‘It is excellent that the government is investing in more evidence informed policy,’ says RSS executive director Hetan Shah. ‘We hope that these pilots will be successful in increasing the up-take of evidence to inform policymaking, and that the relatively small investment in these What Works centres will be increased over time.’
 

StatsUserNet celebrates first anniversary

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StatsUserNet, the Royal Statistical Society’s interactive website for all users of official statistics, has just celebrated its first anniversary.
 
Launched in February 2012 with support from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the UK Statistics Authority, it now has over 1,700 members signed up to around 25 communities of interest. Members come from a wide range of sectors, including central and local government, academia, business, the voluntary sector and the general public.
 
StatsUserNet has a number of aims which include:
 
  • To enable users to exchange information and experience freely on all statistical topics
     
  • To enable communication between users and producers of official statistics (producers are increasingly announcing their outputs on StatsUserNet and actively seeking feedback)
     
  • To involve users in the planning process and strategy for official statistics, with the “Consultations” community being used for gathering views on plans for changes to statistical outputs
     
  • To provide support to wider user activities, including User Groups
     
  • Increasing awareness of official statistics and their use more widely.
 
A variety of topic-based communities is already up and running and has hosted discussions on high-profile areas such as inflation measures, national well-being, the Census and health.
 
Each community provides the facility to host online discussions, post blogs, deposit documents in a library and post details of forthcoming events. It is also possible to develop micro websites linked to a community, as has been done by the Health Statistics User Group. Overall, StatsUserNet provides a useful and free resource for user groups.
 
Dev Virdee, user engagement manager on the programme, is keen for any users of statistics to engage with the site. ‘It is easy to register – go to www.statsusernet.org.uk, provide your email and set a password, and then sign up to any communities that you have an interest in,’ he explains. ‘You will then be able to play an active part. However, even without signing up, you should be able to observe many of the ongoing discussions and see existing documents and blogs.’
 
He adds: ‘If your area of interest is not covered, please contact us to discuss whether a new community needs to be established, or to extend the scope of an existing one.’
 
For further information, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

Hospital mortality statistics put under spotlight by Francis report

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The statistics behind hospital mortality rates have been questioned by MPs after 14 hospital trusts were named as being under investigation.
 
Bernard Jenkin MP, who chairs the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), wrote to Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, expressing concern over the index used to name five hospitals with the highest rates of mortality, saying it is ‘relatively unproven’.
 
Following the recent publication of the Francis report, the government asked the NHS medical director, Sir Bruce Keogh, to conduct a further investigation into five hospitals with the highest mortality rates. The Francis report looked into what went wrong at Stafford Hospital, where an estimated 400-1200 patients are believed to have died between 2005 and 2009 as a result of poor care.
 
In his letter, Bernard Jenkin pointed out that one index used to identify five hospitals with the highest mortality rates, the Summary Hospital-level Mortality Indicator (SHMI), is ‘a new and relatively unproven indicator’. He also noted that after these five hospitals were identified using SHMI, further hospitals were named using a more established indicator, the Hospital Standardised Mortality Ratio (HSMR).
 
Bernard Jenkin asked Andrew Dilnot if he could advise the government on how these measures of hospital patient mortality could be used ‘without causing undue alarm in the media, and amongst patients, staff and the wider public’.
 
In his response, Andrew Dilnot pointed out that while the SHMI was intended to be a successor to the HSMR, it should not be used as a sole indicator of the quality of care and should be used as part of a range of indicators. As to why both indicators had been used to name the 14 hospitals currently being investigated, Dilnot said that it was a ‘reasonable approach’ since the introduction of the SHMI is relatively recent and both indicators were readily available.
 
The UK Statistics Authority chair promised that the Statistics Authority would ‘do all it can to ensure that these official statistics are properly understood.’
 
Dilnot also indicated that in response to the Francis Report, the Statistics Authority was planning to undertake an independent review of patient outcome statistics, working with the Office for National Statistics, the Department of Health and the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). The findings of this review will be published in summer 2013.
 
Both letters are published on the UK Statistics Authority website.
 

Society invites comments on its long term strategy draft

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The Royal Statistical Society’s Long Term Strategy Group (LTSG) has drafted a report on the Society’s vision and strategy for the next five years.
 
The draft follows a broad consultation with fellows, staff and other interested parties, as well as an open session at the 2012 RSS conference.
 
The draft report is now available to view on the RSS website (go to ‘Strategy & Business Planning’ under the ‘About’ column) and comments from both members and non-members are invited until Friday 26 April 2013.
 
While the draft report is a comprehensive and internally focused document which provides detail on how each of the six strategic objectives could be achieved, there is also a much shorter, public facing strategy document contained in Appendix 1 (on page 29), which summarises the long term vision and six strategic objectives of the Society.
 
Here, the overall vision is articulated as ‘A world where data are at the heart of understanding and decision-making’.
 
The six strategic goals for the next five years are summarised as follows:
 
  1. For statistics to be used effectively in the public interest, so that policy formulation and decision-making are evidence based, for the good of society.
     
  2. For society to be more statistically literate, so that people’s understanding of data, risk, and probability can inform their daily decision-making, leading to better outcomes.
     
  3. For a strong body of professional statisticians to maintain and develop the skills they need so that they can critically apply methodology, interpret results and communicate findings.
     
  4. For statistics as a discipline to thrive, so that methodology is advanced, applied and made accessible, leading to greater understanding of an increasingly complex world.
     
  5. For an engaged and energised membership and staff to work collaboratively with partner organisations and other stakeholders in meeting these goals, so that the Society can maximise its impact.
     
  6. For the RSS to be a financially sustainable and well run organisation, with effective governance and use of technology, so that it will grow in relevance, exert influence and have wider impact.
 
The group requests that the following template is used to submit comments on the draft so that they can be collated easily. All comments should be submitted by Friday 26 April. The final recommendations will then be presented to Council in June 2013 and these findings will, in turn, be fed into the activity planning process for 2014 and onwards.
 
The LTSG convened in 2012 and is chaired by former RSS vice president Andy Garrett. The group is very grateful to everyone who have contributed so far, including sections and local groups, various RSS committees, members, and external stakeholders.
 

HEFCE call for advice on open access

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The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is inviting advice, from anyone with an interest in research and academic publishing, on developing the four UK funding bodies’ joint policy on open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF).
 
Full details, including the HEFCE documents, are available to view here on the HEFCE website.
 
Those submitting advice will contribute to the development of consultation proposals on implementing an open access requirement in the next REF exercise. The consultation will run later in 2013.
 
Interested fellows can either respond directly to HEFCE, or send comments to the RSS if they feel that there is a particular point the Society as a whole should be making. Responses can be emailed to Moussa Haddad, policy and research manager at the RSS.
 
The deadline for responses to HEFCE is 25 March 2013. Any comments to RSS would need to be made in advance of this date.
 

Society launches Journal Club

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The RSS is to host a series of events where authors featured in statistical journals present their papers via a teleconference.
 
Titled ‘Journal club’ the teleconferences will be open to both members and non-members, who can dial-in to participate in the event. Papers and slides will be available to download beforehand online and each event will focus on a particular theme.
 
The first event, a joint session with PSI (Statisticians in the Pharmaceutical Industry), is scheduled for 2pm-3.30pm (BST) on 16 April and will focus on topics in survival analysis. This session will be chaired by James Carpenter of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and features two authors, Abdus S Wahed of the University of Pittsburgh and Nicola Schmitt of AstraZeneca.
 
Each author will present their paper for 20 minutes followed by a 20-minute discussion. Participants are welcome to submit questions before the event and/or take part in the discussion. A podcast will be available shortly after the teleconference to download from the RSS website.
 
The series is sponsored by Quintiles and the first event is also sponsored by Wiley Blackwell. Further information on how to dial in and how to submit a question can be found on the RSS events page and on the PSI website.
 
A flier for the event is also downloadable from here.
 

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