Are Political Changes Making It Harder to Access Official Statistics?

Working as a statistical consultant in both the public and private sectors, it’s clear why Official Statistics and other open government data are a vital source of information.  In the public sector, population demographics provide a vital context for policy development and assessment.  In the private sector, Official Statistics are widely used by businesses in order for them to fully understand large-scale market behaviour and patterns to gain a market advantage.  This is well demonstrated by the success in the last decade of Tesco’s Loyalty card.

Given their importance, it is worrying that access to these data, at both a local and national level, is becoming harder; often due to changes in the political landscape.  The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has historically been the central repository for UK data.  However, since devolution, the ONS has been joined by the Scottish Government, StatsWales and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, each of which work independently of one another.  As a consequence, as this Guardian article points out, statistics have become harder to obtain for the UK as a nation due to the differences in devolved political systems, methodologies and release dates.  The recent Census 2011 illustrates this issue well, which as the Guardian notes “is arguably the UK’s most important dataset, yet published at different times and for different regional breakdowns”.

You may argue that breaking down statistics to a local level is more important than UK-wide statistics, but we have found that local statistics have also been affected by recent political changes.  In the June 2010 Emergency Budget, the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were abolished in favour of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).  The RDAs had been established to coordinate economic growth and regeneration on a regional scale and one of their key roles was the analysis and dissemination of regional and local Official Statistics, principally carried out by the Regional Observatories (for example, the South West Observatory).  Thus, with the closure of the RDAs and other key contributors to the regional intelligence networks – Government Offices, Observatories, Assemblies and regionally-based teams from the Office for National Statistics – as well as the impact of budgetary cuts on analytical capacity across the public sector, there is no longer a coordinated approach to disseminating sub-national (socio)-economic information.

It is not yet clear how the devolution of national Official Statistics will impact the public and private sectors, or how organisations will fill the gap left by the RDAs.  The latter played an important role,  not only in terms of collating, analysing and interpreting sub-regional data, but also in understanding how these data can be put into a global, national and regional context.  With the right support in place, organisations will still be able to make use of national and local Official Statistics to make evidence-based decisions, but the key will be finding the right partners to work with.

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