Resetting the focus: how we’re making statistics in Scotland better

May 20, 2024 by No Comments | Category Statistics Policy

by Paul Matthews, Senior Statistician in the Office of the Chief Statistician.

I used to play tennis a bit when I was younger. Definitely not at a Murray level (!), but I found it fun. I wasn’t the sporty type, so it was rare for me to find something I enjoyed. Back then it was a lot of effort to play tennis; I had to walk across the town I lived in to get to the courts. I stopped playing a long time ago because life got in the way. Fast forward to the present, and I now live a stones throw away from a tennis club. I had no excuse not to join. But after almost three years living here, I eventually joined the club last week! Why did I not do it sooner? I don’t have a good reason; I knew it would be good for me, and others said I should join, but I never got round to it until now.  

Everyone has that ‘thing’ they want to get to that would be a clear benefit, but they never seem to get round to it. Sometimes that’s because there isn’t enough time, or that we don’t prioritise it. Sometimes it can be fear of change. Sometimes we can be comfortable with the status quo, even if it isn’t ideal. 

Improving statistics 

I’ve been working in the Office of the Chief Statistician in Scottish Government for three and a half years now, heading up the recently renamed Statistics Improvement, Policy and People Unit. Over the years it’s been interesting to observe how our very talented statisticians have an interest in making their statistics and how they produce them better, but have found it difficult to do so. We can all understand it; days fill up with emails, meetings and requests. Greater demands pile up which makes it hard to find the time and energy for improvement work.  

We spoke to our statisticians a few years ago and I was really struck by how passionate those who joined us more recently were keen to use the skills they acquired at university to get us out of the traditional ways of doing things. It made me think that we needed a greater focus on improvement to make what was on people’s backburners a greater priority. And to shine a light on other things we can do to improve the value of statistics in Scotland that our statisticians may not have considered. 

Statistics strategic priorities 

Recently we launched our strategic priorities for statistics in Scottish Government. We have four overarching priorities relating to how we can improve our statistics in Scotland:

  • Users – how value for the range of users should be central to everything we do; 
  • Efficiency – how we should be streamlining what we do as far as possible; 
  • Data, and how we maximise its use; 
  • People – how we make the most of statisticians’ skills. 

How individual statistics teams take forward these priorities is up to them. We provided some steers under the priorities which relate to things we see as good practice in statistical production. For example, we advocate producing shorter and snappier statistical publications to have greater impact, or critically evaluating data sources and making informed decisions of how we can use it in new ways. We also talk about stopping tasks and processes that add minimal value. 

What the priorities mean? 

Ultimately, our statisticians are in the best position to judge what is the best use of the data and resources they have to meet the needs of the range of users of their statistics. Often statistics producers are pulled in many different directions, and specific users or the loudest voices can often influence the direction of travel. The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) talk about how important it is that we produce statistics for the public good. This means that statisticians need to focus on all current and potential users of statistics when deciding work programmes for statistics production. The priorities are designed to empower them to do that. 

This means that some statistics may be reduced in frequency or discontinued. We recently spoke to Cabinet about this, and they were supportive. They understand that statistics are produced independently and impartially as per the Code of Practice for Statistics, and were keen that any changes are not seen to be politically motivated. Communication is key to all of this. We encourage our statistics producers to speak to users about their plans for improvement and continually engage through this process.  

What this will lead to is a better suite of statistics in all areas of life in Scotland that better meets everyone’s needs. We’re already seeing what our statisticians are doing and plan to do in all areas across Scottish Government, and it’s very exciting! We intend to share examples of these improvements in due course. 

Until then, where’s my tennis racket! 


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