1. Introduction

Chair’s foreword

The past year, 2020/21, was dominated of course by the terrible pandemic which so hugely changed all our lives. It posed a real test for the statistical system – perhaps the greatest since the Second World War – as the country depended on official data to assess and rapidly respond to the threat to millions of lives and livelihoods. Looking back, I think I can say now that this has been a challenge which has shown the strength of our system, producing work that has been of fundamental importance to government decision making and public understanding. I want to pay tribute to all those working within the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), and the Government Statistical Service (GSS). At a time of immense disruption to their lives and their normal ways of working, they responded with initiative and creativity to tell the stories of every section of our society. They can feel proud of their contribution.

This moment for statistics in our national life and in the public consciousness helped drive our new strategy, launched in July 2020. Statistics for the Public Good outlines our desire to accelerate the progress made during the pandemic: more agile production, efficient sharing of data, and the best possible use of statistics and evidence in public debate. Since then, I have been meeting GSS colleagues from departments across the Government Statistical Service to continue the push for these and our new organisational principles: we will aim to be Radical, Ambitious, Inclusive, and Sustainable.

The past year also saw ONS deliver the largest ever census in England and Wales, and our thanks go to the more than 97% of households for taking part and providing the information that will, among myriad other uses, underpin the provision of public services in the years to come. I am pleased to report on a well run field operation which has now reached its conclusion, and we await the arrival of the final data next year. In other areas, colleagues delivered remarkable work including the Coronavirus Infection Survey, the review into the use of algorithms to award school qualifications, a whole range of analyses across government of our exit from the European Union, and the steady build-up of an Integrated Data Programme.

Our leadership has also changed as we gear up to deliver on the new strategy. In the Autumn we welcomed Sam Beckett as our new Second Permanent Secretary and Deputy Chief Executive, and Alison Pritchard as Director General for Data Capability, both bringing decades of experience in analysis at the top of government, helping to guide our teams through a transformative period. We welcomed two new non-executive directors in Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter and Richard Dobbs. Shortly we will say goodbye to Professor David Hand, who has served on the Board since 2013. His thoughtful expertise has been invaluable and we all thank him most warmly. I look forward to working with our newest board member, Professor Sir John Aston, who will be taking up David’s mantle in providing top class statistical advice.

This will be my last Annual Report as I begin my fifth and final year as Chair. I take this opportunity to thank my colleagues on the Authority Board for all their wisdom and support. I have every confidence that our statistical system will continue to move forward, both responsive and forward looking, and taking advantage of the new opportunities from joined up data in an ethical way, delivering statistics for the public good and earning trust.

David Norgrove
Chair, UK Statistics Authority
7 July 2021

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Chief Executive’s report

I am immensely proud of the determination, innovation, flexibility, and resilience my colleagues across the statistical system have shown in responding to the multitude of unprecedented challenges faced this year. In responding to those challenges we have discovered opportunities to do things differently. Opportunities to radically improve the way that information flows to decision makers and the public and to change the way that we work for the better.

Our vision for the statistics system over the next five years has been set out in our new radical, ambitious, sustainable and inclusive strategy, Statistics for the Public Good. We have already made huge strides in delivering on our shared agenda, providing the public, businesses and policy makers with the information they need, when they need it.

The highlights of the past year are set out below.

We have taken a radical approach to analysis and been at the forefront of supplying insight on society and the economy to help the public, businesses and decision makers understand and respond to the pandemic.

  • Central to the COVID-19 response has been our world-leading COVID-19 Infection Survey launched in partnership with Oxford University. This has enabled weekly statistics of new infections and the positivity rate of COVID-19 in the community down to sub-regional levels and by a range of characteristics across the UK. By autumn the survey had scaled up to 150,000 participants a fortnight and was vital to informing decision-making on the UK variant. In testing for antibodies it is now providing vital information on understanding the longevity of vaccine induced immunity.
  • We have transformed our weekly Opinions Survey to provide vital information on changes in societal behaviour which have directly informed government policy.
  • Death Registration data has been vital to understand the impact of the pandemic in households, care homes and hospitals. It has provided information on relative risk for everyone in the UK.
  • On the economy, these past 12 months have seen a radical expansion of our weekly faster indicators release, making use of rapid response surveys, novel data sources, and experimental methods to bring together real-time insights on the pandemic and on the Labour Market.
  • In the lead up to the end of the EU Exit Transition period, we produced new publications on how the UK trades with the rest of the world. This included insights into trade in goods and services by business characteristics as well as developing models and obtaining new indicators to strengthen our analysis and understanding of movements in trade data.
  • We have continued to produce our core business as usual statistical
    and analytical products – crime bulletins; labour market statistics; prices; and GDP – even where the collection, analysis and dissemination of these outputs has been significantly impacted by the pandemic.

We have also continued to radically strengthen our data capability providing timely access to data, technology, modern data science techniques and methodology for the ONS, GSS, wider users across government and the research community. Joining up data improves outcomes for citizens and allows us to be more responsive. This capability has enhanced the Government’s ability to respond to emerging needs such as those presented by COVID-19.

Our radical approach to analysis and insight go beyond COVID-19 with ONS a leading delivery partner for the cross-Government Integrated Data Programme (IDP). We are building a comprehensive data service, underpinned by secure and trusted infrastructure, which will enable governments to make best use of data assets and support unlocking the potential of linked data, building up data standards and tools allowing for new analyses to support development of policy, decision making and planning and provision of services.

Insights from this programme will provide policymakers with evidence and analyses to build understanding of major policy challenges such as Net Zero, homelessness and Levelling Up; and also the creation of a unique linked data resource that securely combines Census, healthcare and death registration data. This has already enabled fast production of essential insights into health inequalities to inform priorities for shielding and lockdown measures in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working in partnership with colleagues across the Government Statistical Service we have ensured joined-up evidence and information on deaths, vaccinations and more. This evidence has informed the public through our Insights tool and contributed to discussions at the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies and the heart of Government.

  • Early in the pandemic we launched the Business Impact of Coronavirus Survey (BICS) to provide critical evidence of the impact to businesses and inform some of the most important decisions by providing analyses on furloughing, international trade and business expectations over time.
  • Our insights into Public Sector Finances data have kept pace with around 50 separate schemes to support the economy since the onset of the pandemic. This has included delivering fast-paced, conceptually ground-breaking work to measure changes in public sector output – particularly in education and healthcare.
  • We have accelerated research and developed new analysis and methods to provide demographic insights, publishing an early indicator of the UK population along with modelled migration estimates.
  • We delivered what has been a truly brilliant and successful Census. This followed an ambitious communications campaign which built on a virtual programme of engagement with local communities and the creation of an in-house digital cloud infrastructure, enabling almost 30 million households to access and respond to the Census online. To date our return rate is over 97% of household questionnaires.

We have also been ambitious in our approach to building cross government capability with our Data Science Campus exceeding the National Data Strategy’s ambitious target of training 500 analysts across the public sector in data science by 2021, with over 681 analysts now using novel data science tools and techniques. The Data Science Graduate Programme has enabled apprentices and graduates to play a vital role supporting coronavirus response work and delivering insights to decision-makers at the highest level.

We are leading Data Masterclasses for Senior Leaders in partnership with Government, as well as the Data Science Accelerator mentoring programme in partnership with the Government Digital Service, which has already supported over 250 data science projects across Government.

Like many other organisations, ONS has adapted to remote working at pace. As a result of the incredible delivery of our Digital Service and Technology and People and Business Services Directorates, ONS has moved from an organisation that was predominately site based, to one that supports remote working for over 5,500 staff. As we emerge from the pandemic, we will work in a more hybrid way to give colleagues flexibility to benefit from both working from home and working in the office.

Throughout this period, the employee diversity networks have continued to play a crucial role in building an inclusive culture within the organisation. I and the senior leadership team have participated in events, listening exercises and a mutual mentoring programme with employee network members. We have invested in the development of our employee network leaders to strengthen their capability and confidence in their role, and reviewed network sponsorship and governance arrangements to ensure they are sufficiently strong.

The 2020 People survey saw a six percentage point increase in our fair treatment and inclusion score to 85%, against a Civil Service Benchmark of 82% whilst the percentage of individuals who responded “yes” to experiencing workplace bullying and harassment has decreased by four percentage points from 12% in 2019 to 8% in 2020, which again was below the Civil Service Benchmark of 9%. This trend also continued with the number of those who experienced workplace discrimination decreasing four percentage points from 12% in 2019 to 8% in 2020 which is two percent below the Civil Service Benchmark. While this is good progress however, this is only the start of the journey and there is much more to do in the year ahead.

To ensure we serve those we seek to represent in October 2020 we launched the Inclusive Data Taskforce (IDTF), an independent group of senior academics and civil society leaders with wide ranging expertise across a range of equalities issues. They are considering how to radically improve the inclusivity of the UK’s data infrastructure to ensure our statistics reflect the experiences of everyone in our society. The IDTF will make recommendations in Summer 2021 and these will form the basis of a programme of work to be taken forward across the Government Statistical Service, led by ONS, to ensure inclusivity is built into everything we do.

We have continued to support countries internationally – including Kenya and Tanzania – to develop their own action plans to collect, analyse and disseminate more inclusive statistics.

More widely, there has been collaboration between statisticians in the ONS, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) on a new vision to improve the coherence of income and earnings statistics and provide the best insights possible.

HMRC and the ONS developed their use of Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Real Time Information (RTI) data so it now measures employment patterns two-three weeks after the relevant pay period. This monthly publication has massive value in near real time and is becoming the main measure for explaining employment patterns over these uncertain times.

The new local area child poverty statistics (CiLIF), jointly developed by DWP and HMRC replaced previous Official Statistics produced individually by both Departments.

We have been inclusive in the use of government microdata enabling accredited researchers access to a range of data through our Secure Research Service (SRS) as part of facilitating our understanding of COVID-19 as well as to help validate official statistics. In 2020 through investment from Administrative Data Research UK, a total of 19 new datasets were made available to third party researchers through the SRS, including eight focused on COVID-19. In all, these resulted in over 200 new analyses.

We have further broadened and supported access to data through our partnership with Health Data Research UK to help meet the Government’s National Core Study on Data and Connectivity.

We have also continued to unlock the potential of combining health and social care data, working closely with NHS Digital and other health bodies to create the Public Health Data Asset to create a uniquely powerful resource.

Our inclusive approach has stretched beyond the collection and analysis of data through to dissemination of data. As part of the Government led press briefings our teams have worked extensively with Cabinet Office to ensure data and analysis presented at national press conferences are accessible and comprehendible by all.

We continue to innovate in a bid to build sustainable methods for our vital statistics. This has seen the publication of work into experimental Gross Domestic Product (GDP) estimates using double deflation methods, which have been recognised as international best practice. We will be fully incorporating these world leading methods into our GDP estimates in September 2021.

Our key strategic programmes have delivered their planned objectives during the year significantly under budget. We have delivered all planned activity under the Census Data Collection Transformation Programme with a £31.9m saving against the budget for 2020/21. This achievement is made even more remarkable by virtue of the increased costs the programme has faced in keeping our significant field force of 20,000 (at its peak) safe as they have undertaken their duties. The COVID-19 Infection Survey (CIS) has been delivered as planned with a saving of circa £103 million against the original funding envelope. We have also finalised the Economic Statistics Transformation Programme during 2020/21 – delivering 94% of the planned benefits.

We have been rolling Reproducible Analytical Pipelines (RAP) out across the Analysis Function, building capability through consultancy and mentoring, and supporting implementation with standards and guidance. Our RAP champions, are drawn from all major departments and professions, promoting good practice, running peer reviews, sharing what works, tackling blockers and building local capability. RAP deployments have achieved notable efficiencies and quality improvements in official statistics production in ONS and across government.

Work on the new cloud-based technology to support transformation continues and a user test/parallel run of Retail Sales Index using the Statistical Production Platform will start in Autumn 2021. This will be the first ONS survey using this infrastructure and will provide many of the building blocks needed for future transformation of business and potentially social surveys in the future.

Our surveys are now overwhelmingly completed online with 45% of business surveys fully online where users complete the surveys via their online accounts (1,080,011 online business surveys dispatched in 2020/21) as of end March 21.

We remain at the forefront of producing environmental statistics, such as measures of Natural Capital – including marine and woodland habitats, urban areas, and tourism and outdoor leisure – and engaging internationally to support development as well as work to go ‘beyond GDP’.

We continue to be a global leader in reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals Goals (SDG), covering topics from renewable energy, through food insecurity, to non-formal education participation. We have worked with the US on an open-source web platform to disseminate SDG statistics. Five more countries have started using this free-to-reuse platform over the past year, along with two cities and regions now publishing using it with two more in development – all with direct or indirect ONS support.

Concluding remarks

I am immensely proud and humbled to lead these efforts in what have been extraordinary and challenging times. Together, we have achieved an incredible amount and placed statistics and analysis right at the heart of our nation’s discourse. I want to personally thank everyone at the ONS and within the Government Statistical Service who have contributed to making this happen. With our strategy launched less than a year ago, we have already made huge strides on delivering on it and realising our vision of statistics for the public good.

As we emerge from the pandemic, I want us to build on the momentum we have gained over the past year and ensure that statistics and analysis continue to inform national and local priorities and decision making.

Our society, environment and economy will continue to change, and we must change with it. To stand still is to go backwards. In the next year we must be proactive so that we can sustain our delivery.

Central to this will be taking a radical approach to data by using our expertise to build the IDP, which over time, will help us, governments and other sectors maximise the opportunities presented by data and will help us answer the key questions facing the economy and society in close to real time.

I want to thank each and every person working in or partnered with the statistical system again for all their hard work. Without my colleagues working tirelessly to provide statistics, data and analysis our nation would be far poorer. We would know nothing of the social and economic shifts that have happened in the past year. We would know little of the scale of suffering that many families have faced. My thoughts are with each and every one of those who have felt loss in the past 12 months.

But it is with hope and optimism that I am very much looking forward to continuing to lead the statistical system over the coming year as we look to build on what we have done and continue to deliver our mission of high quality data and analysis to inform the UK, improve lives and build the future.

Professor Sir Ian Diamond

National Statistician

UK Statistics Authority

7 July 2021

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