Statistical Steerage

April sees the change at the helm of the UK Statistics Authority.  That can be helpful stock-take  point to get a big picture sense of where things are, and where they are going. 

UKSA was created by the Statistics and Registration Service Act of 2007 and came into being on 1st April 2008 (See Statutory Statistical).  The Authority's statutory objective is to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. It is also required to promote and safeguard the quality and comprehensiveness of official statistics, and ensure good practice in relation to official statistics. 

Interestly, the Chair of UKSA is Crown appointment, made with the approval of Parliament following a pre-appointment hearing before the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee and a formal motion debated on the floor of the House of Commons.  The first five years have been under the stewardship of Sir Michael Scholar KCB.  The baton has now been handed over to Andrew Dilnot CBE.  An eminent public figure (Institute of Fiscal Studies, Social Security Advisory Committee, the National Consumer Council)  and indeed the founding presenter of  Radio 4's more or less show about stats in real life issues.  A good provenance then. 

So where are we.  In short the UKSA has been doing three things:

1. Code of Practice for Official Statistics.  Creating what is in essence the guide to best practice context for data - consolidating, refining and developing lots of guidance over the decade from amongst others, the Audit Commission, HM Treasury, Cabinet Office.  Covering 74 business processes (principles, protocols, practices) from consultation on needs through to publication processes.  It is quite a challenge to get right, and helpfully sets the bar high.  In the spirit of the original Chinese saying...."If you aim for the top of the tree you'll probably never leave the ground, but if you aim for the moon you might at least get to the top of the tree".  Fundamental here is that this is a generic code, and applicable to "official" as opposed to just "national" statistics.  Some interesting emphasis has follow on this.  

2. National Statistics Stamp.  Steadily working through the entire scope of national statistics and given them the stamp of approval, resulting in:

- Assessment Reports: Currently 190 and counting. 
- Breach Reports in respect of the Code: 59.  
- Issues Log for issues highlighted to UKSA in 11/12: 50

3. Challenging and championing.  In respect of the use of official statistics.  Leading and supporting some of the very technical debates (Retail Prices Index etc.) and at the other end of the spectrum. very publically challenging the inappropriate use of statistics by those who should know better.  Ministerial apologies being a familiar outcome.

So where are we going.  Perhaps most indicative at such a pivot point are the parting shots from the previous chair and the very early signs from the new chair.

A. Administrative data is an opportunity

This is a significant and substantive outgoing message.  It's all about the use of administrative date for statistical purposes.  Building on some earlier debate about the boundaries of management information, statistical, research administrative data. In short how administrative data - process data collected not primarily for statistical purposes - can be effectively embraced and harnessed for statistical use, with the right expert engagement and with important caveats too.
The wordcloud of the UKSA letter to the Cabinet Office on the use of administrative data....

In fact data is data.  It's all of the other things which are different and determinate. Purpose, definition, methodology, accuracy, scope and so on  (See Data Provenance).  Understanding that context is the key to unlocking whatever the potential might be.  So having compartmentalised data to help clarify and understand, there is a timely opportunity to bind them together in an informed and useful way.  

B. Interpretation is key.

The UKSA has created a foundation to explore the importance of the role of interpretation. After all the data the means to an end - specifically the means to the message.  This has been encouraged and supported by the influential Public Administration Select Committee "recommends that the Statistics Authority should take a proactive role in ensuring that data released is intelligible, objectively interpreted and in a readily accessible format"

This is also emphasised in some of the correspondence to MPs encouraging "more systematic public presentation of all the relevant statistical material along with appropriate professional explanation and guidance".   This was reflected more generally in the significant and succinct UKSA guidance on The Value of Statistical Commentary, previously discussed in Age of Analysis.

This is clearly echoed by the incoming chair, in the second sentence of the initial statement... "I care.... not just about the numbers themselves but about the ways in which they are used and interpreted", and "the need and value of sound and strong statistical analysis" and that "impartial commentary, explanation, and tools for dissemination are critical to our success".   Here's the word-cloud for that opening statement...

So the debate starts to move beyond data into the surrounding analytical and interpretation.  That said the early emerging focus is around what might be described "interpretation of tables"
rather than "process of analysis" from which insight and messages are distilled and synthesised, and of course where the real value is realised. A means to a greater end (see Impactometer).

Hence data is the foundation, and the debate progresses to value the analytical processes that build on and around that.  Probably not helped by the ease by which the term statistics is interpreted so differently  - from "the quantitative data" through to the "science concerned with the collection, classification and interpretation of quantitative data".  So statistics is both the data and the interpretation.  Of course, not forgetting the specific statistical techniques which can produce statistics.....