Do we need more public statistics? An RSS roundtable

On Tuesday 19 July, an expert group of statisticians and data scientists met to discuss whether the UK needs more public statistics. While the temperature outside reached 40 degrees, Paul Allin chair of the National Statistics Advisory Group (NSAG), kept his cool and led a two-hour discussion on whether the RSS should spearhead the development and delivery of ‘public statistics’. That is statistics that shine a spotlight on data needs rather than the designation of data sources.
Is there something that the current UK statistical system could do to meet more fully the concept of public statistics? What is meant by the public good, and which people are included in the definition of the public?
It was argued in the discussion that the growing complexity of the data ecosystem could be an opportunity for more timely, relevant, and -- above all -- useful statistics. Although the Covid-19 pandemic took us into extraordinary times, it nevertheless illustrated the large volume of statistics that are relevant to the public good but are not classified as official statistics. 
Another backdrop to public statistics is the emergence of interest in citizen data and the development of a National Data Strategy. While citizen data refers to “any data that could originate from or relate to any individuals or groups of people” the data appears to be most often used for economic and scientific aims, rather than directly by citizens themselves.
There is much to recognise in how the UK official statistics system is currently working to provide statistics for the public good. Under the Digital Economy Act, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is importing data from new sources and has produced a protocol for assessing non-official data sources, particularly to access a broader range of data sources to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What’s more, the ONS’ Integrated Data Service is being designed “to be ready to answer questions we don’t yet know we need to know”. This could help pre-empt and address potential gaps in data collection.
But where do we go from here? There is more the current statistical system could do to deliver statistics that meet public needs. The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) encourages all organisations that create and provide statistics to voluntarily sign up for the Code of Practice for Statistics. Could an enhanced system of public statistics hold producers accountable to sign up to the Code and meet the standards that it sets out?
Participants at the event agreed on the overarching goal – that regardless of the name, most players in the current system want to produce the best possible data to understand society and address the wider public need.
NSAG will meet in the Autumn to discuss the outcomes of the roundtable and decide whether to take forward a campaign that advocates for a recasting of statistics to public statistics. In the meantime, do let Paul have your thoughts and examples of the need for more public statistics.
Paul can be contacted on
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