A Scottish Statistical Agency wholly independent of the government of the day and run by an independent Chief Statistician is a pre-requisite for the cultural change Scotland needs to drive forward economic progress in the broadest sense, argues Richard Marsh in the second part of his paper.
A breadth of microdata is available and has been (to date) an underused resource. A proactive approach from an independent statistics agency could help local authorities, development agencies, Audit Scotland and the Scottish Government make data-linkage (using administrative data) the standard approach for measuring the impact of economic development policies.
Most independent inquiry covering the state of economic statistics in Scotland has called for an approach that is more imaginative, creative, agile, forward looking and customer focused. This will not be delivered by changing processes but by changing culture to become more forward looking and focused on Scotland’s data needs. This will only be fully realised when Scotland’s statistics system is independent of the government of the day.
Statisticians should not be concerned about how their work will be received by government departments or ministers.
Statisticians should operate within a system which prioritises the development of our statistical systems, engages with stakeholders, uses digital data and online systems more creatively and provides innovative solutions in linking disparate sets of information.
Data will become increasingly important for the effective delivery of public services in Scotland. This needs a cultural step change to adopt a different mindset for how we value public data and statistics and implies a significant programme of support for statisticians and public agentswho work with statistics, to lead this effort.
As Scotland rises to the challenge of engaging in more ambitious policy areas (such as climate change mitigation, technological transition, well-being and inclusive economic growth) we require to frame and act on these areas from a better-informed perspective of both our performance and our goals. Taking a global leadership stance in these highly complex areas will require nothing less.
The Scottish Parliament inquiry into economic data highlighted potential ‘advantages’ for the SG as both a user and producer of national statistics. This includes the ability to publish economic statistics without prior notice, the ability to withdraw or delay some economic data publications. Therefore, the inquiry highlighted a potentially strong risk of data being used in a partial way.
However, the perception of an advantage for the government of the day is misplaced. The SG is as likely to benefit from an independent statistics agency as those seeking to hold the government to account. During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum the UK Government published a series of research reports as part of a Scotland analysis programme.
The Scottish analysis programme explored how independence would impact the economy, businesses, jobs and public services. The analysis was supported by statistics and economic modelling and was contested by many economists. Scrutiny of the UK government’s analysis would be significantly strengthened by the more prominent voice of an independent Chief Statistician and an independent Scottish Statistics Agency.
An additional argument can be made here: by having an independent agency, questions of timing and availability of data are no longer subject to accusations of narrow political gain.
Creating a statistics system owned by the Scottish statistics community
Recalling that the UK system of producing statistics was designed to produce economic statistics for the whole of the UK, and not for the devolved administrations, it is clear that the pace of devolution has exposed flaws in the application of the UK system to producing economic statistics in Scotland.
Currently compared to ONS statisticians, SG statisticians tend to operate in a way which could be described as opportunistic, but relatively powerless, statistical scavengers. This is not to underplay the dedication of the profession, but rather to expose the constraints under which they operate.
Policy makers and those involved in economic development need to engage in the development of an independent statistics system for Scotland. The wholesale change emanating from an independent statistics agency would inter alia support local authorities, development agencies, Audit Scotland and the Scottish Government.
Cultural change will need to be supported by a wider step-change in the way economic data is used to inform and shape public policy. This will include a programme of support and capacity building for statisticians and others who work with statistics in Scotland.
Those involved in economic development and the delivery of public services have been asked to make better use of available data. But the pace of change is rapid and this has made it more challenging for many organisations to invest the time needed to develop the know-how to exploit new sources of data.
To start answering these challenges, Scotland’s Chief Statistician needs to be made independent from the SG. Furthermore, an independent Scottish Statistics Agency should be established. Independent leadership will help to usher in the wider cultural change needed. This is particularly pressing given the need to establish a global competitive edge in the innovative use of data and the opportunities afforded by the Digital Economy Act (2017).
A Scottish Statistics Agency that is imaginative, creative, agile, forward looking and customer focused would be able to make data-linkage (using administrative data) the standard approach for measuring the impact of economic development policies. This should also include the delivery of wider public services, given the need to ‘widen the net’ of data analysis beyond core economic data when assessing the overall performance of Scotland’s economy.
Northern Ireland, through the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), has more flexibility and power to produce economic statistics. Whilst Scotland remains the most advanced devolved administration in terms of economic statistics, Northern Ireland is making significant advances and is developing a similar set of economic accounts.
Economies with a similar population to Scotland operate independent statistics agencies and have already achieved much of Scotland’s stated vision of data leadership. For example, Stats New Zealand is a government department, but operates independently of government. The StatsNew Zealand Chief Executive also acts at the Government Chief Data Steward (GCDS) to enable a joined-up approach across government.
The economic statistics published by the SG tend to pick out relevant data from UK-wide surveys and administrative data. This approach needs to change if Scotland is to generate a more reliable, relevant and holistic evidence base of its performance from which to base its future economic vision and objectives.
Before a statistics agency is created, a review should be set up detailing the comprehensive data needs of development agencies, local authorities, development agencies, Audit Scotland and Directorates within the SG itself. This would help inform a plan to build an economic statistics system that reflects the needs of Scotland.
This would set an ambitious task for Scotland’s statisticians to fully explore the potential offered through the Digital Economy Act (2017). For example, linking administrative data from HMRC and Revenue Scotland may shine a light on previously hard to measure areas like the extent and impact of zero hours contracts or the short- term residential lets industry.
Establishing an independent statistics agency does not mean the withdrawal or concentration of statisticians. Resources can still be embedded across a range of agencies and SG directorates.
The agency should be led by Scotland’s Chief Statistician who should be independent of the government of the day and free to interpret the dataneeded to support (and measure) government policy and comment about the use and misuse of data in public debate.
Regardless of Scotland’s future constitutional status, having an independent Scottish Statistics Agency and Chief Statistician would inform and improve the quality of public debate. This would provide the necessary foundations for evidence-based policy making in Scotland.
Image courtesy of Tommy Perman
This is an agreed abridged version of a full paper available on the Fraser of Allander Institute website