Office for National Statistics

In late February, the Office for National Statistics decided to classify the Treasury’s raid on the Bank of England’s accumulated interest payments from quantitative easing as a receipt for the public sector.

You can have a long and reasonable argument on whether the raid, euphemistically called a “cash management operation”, is a good idea. But I argued a few days later that the treatment of an internal public sector transfer of money as government revenue in the headline figures was a poor decision by the Office for National Statistics. There was no world in which the underlying public finances had been improved by the move, I argued.

As a journalist I was appalled that Britain’s independent statistical authority was setting out a legalistic argument for an economic question and for a set of statistics that were not governed by international conventions. I felt the statistics for borrowing and debt could not be trusted any more.

As a member of the public, I wrote to the chairman of the UK Statistical Authority, the statistics watchdog, to ask for a review of the ONS decision (email reproduced below). Today, I received a reply from Andrew Dilnot, the UKSA chairman (also reproduced). I am delighted to say the UKSA thinks I raised important points and has set up a short review. Read more

When the Office for National Statistics relaunched its website last year, a geek like me was distraught as it had failed to make navigation of the UK’s generally wonderful statistics easier. “The new ONS website – aaaargh,” I commented.

Today, I gave evidence on the communication of statistics to the Public Administration Select Committee and to test whether the website had improved materially I thought I would pick a relevant question, to which I wanted to find an answer as a member of the public and as an expert user of the website. The question was: Is unemployment higher or lower now than in 1995?

This is the website journey (for lay and expert users) I described in the Committee, which I think is accurate and depressing. I don’t think a non-expert could find the interesting answer (at the bottom of the post) and an expert has to take a long journey to get there. The result should be immediate on clicking on an unemployment link on the homepage or on typing in the relevant 4-digit code for experts. Again, the ONS website – aaaargh.

Member of the public  Read more

Things go from bad to worse for the UK economy. Perhaps the least reported, but most important aspect of last week’s national accounts revisions is the apparent difference between the pre and post crisis trend growth rate.

Because the Office for National Statistics improved (lowered) its calculation of inflation in the national accounts without changing nominal gross domestic product much, growth rates in most years were significantly revised higher. The average annual rate of growth between 1997 and 2008 rose from 2.9 per cent to 3.2 per cent. But the ONS also said the recession was deeper and sharper than before, revising down post 2008 levels of output even with the more generous inflation measure. Read more

Real geeks like me who like downloading data from national statistical websites will have come into work today all of a quiver. The UK Office for National Statistics launched its new website over the weekend promising “to make it easier for our users to find the content they are looking for“.

Apart from expected teething troubles of extremely slow running, the website shows a worrying lack of input from statisticians. For a start, selection of individual data seems to working only occasionally. Most alarmingly, when data is downloaded in Excel, the format conflates annual data, quarterly data and monthly data as below.

No one would ever want to look at data in this crazy format. Monthly data is even worse, mixing monthly quarterly and annual data in one column.

I have complained to the ONS. But in a spirit of public service, I have two ways to work around the problem.

 Read more