Understanding User Needs to Improve Data Use:
A Case Study of the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics
By: SDSN TReNDS and Open Data Watch
16 February 2023
In Fall 2022, SDSN TReNDS and Open Data Watch released the report, Overcoming Data Graveyards in Official Statistics: Catalyzing Uptake and Use, which aimed to provide conceptual clarity around the challenges of improving data use and a way forward for research by sourcing best practices from countries. This blog series spotlights insights and best practices from the countries profiled.
National statistical systems date back to the early 19th century in the United Kingdom (U.K.), having changed configurations many times since in response to new demands for data, particularly over the last 15 years. Today the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is a key actor in promotion and use of official statistics in the U.K. and has exemplified how to meet the demands of its users.
Meeting Users’ Demands
The primary user of data produced by the ONS is the U.K. government, followed by academia and the general public. As such, the ONS works carefully with various ministries, departments, and agencies to provide them with relevant data on business, industry, and trade, economic statistics, and people, population, and community, among others. Currently, the ONS determines demand for statistical data based on government requests for data on key focus areas, eventually formalizing these streams of research in official centers. Currently, five centers exist: Aging and Demography, Crime and Justice, Equality and Inclusion, International Migration, and Subnational Analysis.
The ONS undertakes a wide range of activities to better understand its users. This includes exercises to map out the different types of users, as well as working groups to engage with specific types of users. For example, to engage with economists, the ONS has a working group on economic statistics. And many of these user groups are represented at the highest level by the National Statistician’s Expert User Advisory Committee (NSEUAC). Other committees represent user demands for more inclusive data, such as the National Statistician’s Inclusive Data Advisory Committee which provides feedback on the implementation of the recommendations of the Inclusive Data Task Force.
To discern the data issues that the public is most interested in, the ONS collates the most popular topics from the news to determine the types of data that they should publish. For example, since the cost of living is a widely discussed topic across the media landscape, the ONS published a piece on the increasing cost of living and its impact on adults in Great Britain.
The ONS has also worked with other government agencies, such as the Cabinet Office to incentivize greater collaboration and innovation to improve the value gained from existing government data: The Civil Service Data Challenge asks civil servants to put forth ideas for greater use of government data and compete against one another in teams. After the first round in 2021, the winner of the final round will be crowned in March 2023.
Promoting Data Use Through Expanding Data Literacy and Producer Capacity
The ONS has various programs and trainings to advance data literacy, and it is currently the leading organization in improving data literacy across the U.K. government. It is responsible for training government users of data with necessary data science and analytical skills, and has a two-year work-study program in data science, where graduates from the program transition into public sector roles. Beyond the work-study program, the ONS conducts basic and intensive data science training courses through partnerships with universities. This work is led by the government’s Data Science Campus—which was originally recommended by a 2016 independent review of the UK’s economic statistics, showing how recommendations based on feedback from users can result in substantial organizational changes.
To enhance producer capacity, the ONS occasionally collaborates with academia and civil society organizations during the survey design process. For example, the ONS conducted external consultations to ensure that the census questions pertaining to gender and sexual identity were adequate.
Data use of official statistics in the U.K. is widely promoted and encouraged across government as a result of the ONS’ steadfast commitment to addressing users’ demands via a range of areas. This is supported by the ONS’ cross-sector departments which enable new approaches to data analysis and data use to meet demands of users, data literacy training, and engagement with dedicated user and expert groups.