The ONS reaches its silver jubilee

Created in April 1996, the Office for National Statistics is marking its 25th birthday this month. The anniversary comes after a year in which our statistics have featured in the media and public debate as never before. Here David Bradbury, who joined the organisation soon after its formation, explains how the foundations for our ability to deliver reliable and timely data at a time of national crisis were laid over previous decades.

 Silver jubilees are usually an excuse for a street party. Even were we not still constrained by pandemic precautions – and, of course the continuing pressures of delivering even more of the vital data on which our users depend, it’s probably unlikely we’d be throwing one. But it’s a timely moment nonetheless to reflect on how the ONS has evolved as an organisation over these past two and half decades.

How the ONS was formed

The ONS came into being largely from the merger of the former Central Statistical Office (CSO) – which produced much of the UK’s economic data – and the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, which not surprisingly looked after social surveys and the Census in England and Wales. Even before then, the trend had been towards more centralisation – a 1989 review had led to the Business Statistics Office becoming part of the CSO, and in 1995 the CSO also took over the residual responsibilities of the Department of Employment in producing labour market statistics. In all, when the ONS came into being in 1996, it was some 20 times bigger that the old CSO of the 1980s.

A further development was signalled in late 2005 when the then Chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans make the ONS independent of government, with the governance and publication of official statistics the responsibility of a wholly separate body at arm’s length from government. This bore fruit with the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, which came into force the following year. Under this, the ONS became the executive arm of a new body, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority, answerable directly to Parliament – the arrangement that still prevails today.

One ONS, three homes

The main bases of the new organisation were at London which, as was generally the case with public bodies then, was also the headquarters, Newport in south Wales – where much economic and business data had been produced since the 1970s – and Titchfield in Hampshire, the long-established home of the Census.

That changed in the years after 2004, with the decision to make Newport the official headquarters and to move statistical activities done in London there or to Titchfield. An office presence is still retained in London, and recent years have seen colleagues involved in most of the different areas of ONS work located in all three bases.

From its earliest days then the ONS was used to working across different sites. It’s probably fair to say that helped us cope with the sudden impact of the pandemic. In March 2020 the overnight transition to home working for the vast majority of staff was achieved seamlessly and without disrupting the flow of statistics at this crucial time.

Faster readings of the UK economy

In the course of the past twenty-five years we’ve naturally made many, many improvements to the quality or coverage of our data, far too many to go into here. But it’s worth noting a few of these, particularly some that paid especial dividends during the pandemic.

In 2001 we started the Vacancy Survey to measure all job vacancies, not just those reported to jobcentres (timelier than the Labour Force Survey, it’s become a valuable leading indicator during the pandemic). Recently it’s been supplemented by fast data from our partners at the job advert website Adzuna which has helped us produce quicker insights on how COVID-19 has impacted the jobs market.

In 2005 we launched the Centre for the Measurement of Government Activity to look at how to improve our public sector productivity data. This has been an area of continuous improvement for the ONS ever since: we now produce rapid experimental public service productivity figures, which are already showing the impact of the pandemic on this up to the end of 2020, and we recently blogged about improving education estimates at this time.

In 2018, we began publishing estimates of GDP for single months – previously it had only been published for calendar quarters. Again, this has been a real help getting a faster handle on the major swings in economic performance over the course of the last year as the economy has gone through cycles of lockdown and reopening.

Looking forward, we’re moving into an era where the ONS is able to draw on new and important sources of information to paint a fuller or more up-to-date picture, as loyal readers of this blog will know. For example, credit and debit card data will help us track consumer spending, scanner and web-scraped data will improve our price statistics, and monthly real-time tax data is a vital new source of information on the labour market.

Health, well-being and social issues

In 2012 we began to track people’s sense of wellbeing, very valuable when our lives have become circumscribed by lockdowns and social distancing, and we have recently reported specifically on this. Launched to some unfair media derision as the “National Happiness Index”, this programme is the UK’s contribution to a growing international movement to produce meaningful alternative indicators to the traditional measures of prosperity like GDP.

In 2018 we also published the first estimates of deaths of homeless people, which shed a stark light on this sad topic and investigated the deeply concerning issue of student suicides.

In the last year the ONS has led the UK Coronavirus Infection Survey to measure the prevalence of the virus in the general population. This was vital information — from the outset of the pandemic there was information on cases detected, but back then people tended to get tested only if they were symptomatic, and we now know that many people have the virus without showing symptoms. The survey was set up very quickly (its first results were published less than three weeks after it was officially announced), and has grown to be a large scale operation (the total number of swabs collected across the country is now approaching four million).

The first online Census

Of course, this year has also been memorable for being the run-up to the 2021 Census, the third that’s happened in my time with the ONS. The very way we’ve done censuses has transformed: back in 2001, which was the first census run under the ONS banner, I remember us being very excited about it being the first one where you could post back the forms, rather than having to wait for the enumerator to collect them door-to-door, but this year has seen the first digital-first census, where the option to respond online helped us get a very rapid response, with more than nine out of ten households having already replied.

Telling the story

So while there have been great strides over the years in our core job of producing the numbers that matter, because my work here has always been about disseminating our statistics, perhaps I should end with something about that.

I joined an ONS where the focus was publishing our data as paper reports and journals, for sale to the public through Her Majesty’s Stationery Office – indeed my first job here was editing one of these paper journals, Labour Market Trends (see here for the first issue to go online, slightly after my time). There was even a small shop in our headquarters where you could buy these reports. Perhaps the most cutting-edge thing we did by way of dissemination was offering a fax-back service so users could access our latest economic figures as soon as they came out.

All that pretty soon changed, with our statistics being made freely available to anyone via publication on our website. As we adapted to this brave new world, we increasingly shaped our outputs to an online world, to take advantage of the freedoms this gave us, such as the use of interactive graphics.

So, with its reputation and name-recognition boosted from how we’ve coped with the challenges of the pandemic, many important developments brought in (and with more to look forward to) in terms of new data sources, the Office for National Statistics can look back with some satisfaction on its first 25 years and with great anticipation towards the coming quarter-century. I for one am proud to have been along for almost all of the ride.

A picture of the author of the blog and book, David Bradbury. David is leaning on a wall overlooking a pretty cityscape

David Bradbury is a Senior Media Relations Officer at the ONS.