Sunday, October 23, 2005














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Saturday Feature
Chief statistician makes a calculated assessment of her task
Simon Briscoe

          Karen Dunnell, Britain's top statistician, has a tough job if she is to restore public confidence in government figures. But by completing the modernisation programme set in train by her predecessors, she is confident she can.
In an interview with the Financial Times, her first with a national newspaper since becoming national statistician, she makes clear she is determined to meet the "incredible demand" for statistics, at the same time getting more value for money from her tight budget.
She explained her strategy on October 14 to one of her most demanding customers, the Bank of England. It has been made clear to them she brings a very different style to the job than her immediate predecessor, the New Zealander Len Cook, who, while famed for his obvious enthusiasm, often bubbled over into injudicious outbursts. He once claimed he was the country's most abused civil servant.
Ms Dunnell is equally enthusiastic, but expresses it in a more measured way than her predecessor, a legacy of her 30 years in the civil service. Indeed, she hopes to make progress in areas that eluded Mr Cook, using her powers of persuasion to get some of the larger ministries to adopt more fully appropriate statistical standards. As National Statistician she is responsible, theoretically at least, for the statistical output from departments other than her own Office for National Statistics.
As one insider says: "She has empathy with senior civil servants, understanding what they are about and the pressures they face." At 59, her age could work in her favour as she is not seen as a "young upstart" with something to prove.
Colleagues say she is tough, despite first appearances, and would ultimately be prepared publicly to condemn behaviour in other departments should she feel they were presenting misleading statistics or failing to do their job properly.
Tough decisions will be required to balance a stretched budget and she will be hunting for cost savings where possible. To this end, she is having "interesting discussions" with users of economic data with a view to "cutting down on the frequency of publication [of some indicators) to refocus expenditure elsewhere". She says that no key macroeconomic statistics will be adversely affected.
At the heart of her three-year plan is the "incredibly ambitious" statistical modernisation programme "affecting every system in the office". She says it "will reduce the opportunity for human error and idiosyncratic decision making while increasing the speed of production." She intends to have a "meaner and leaner" system to collect data allowing more time for "value added analysis".
Ms Dunnell is looking forward to the imminent launch of the review of the framework that established the concept of National Statistics in 2000, and is now scheduled for an overhaul. She described the latest survey on the integrity of government figures as disappointing and said the review could play a large part in boosting confidence in them.
She believes that the limited scope of the National Statistics framework is part of the problem.
Only figures selected by ministers fall under the quality controls of the National Statistics banner but she believes all data used by policymakers and politicians should be subject to the same rigours. "The omission of so many statistics causes great confusion," she says.
She is most interested in the use and users of data and not coming from an overly theoretical background enables her to be slightly detached from some of the more technical issues to which her predecessors have arguably devoted too much time.
For example, the loss of some national statistics since devolution, as the various authorities pursued their own priorities, has upset users. It is a weakness she is keen to address, considering it to be a "main gap", and she is already encouraging the devolved authorities to work more closely to deliver figures on a comparable basis.
Improvements to the presentation of data to "ease comprehension" is another focus of attention, as is the need to find resources to upgrade the website.
Ms Dunnell is keen to gain access to as much administrative data as possible from other government departments, leveraging off several cross -government reviews already under way, to improve the quality of the figures. While legislation will be needed to access some data, much is "being blocked for non-legal reasons," she says.
If worrying about ministers, the public and statistics is not enough, Ms Dunnell will face challenges with her own staff. As part of the chancellor's cost savings plan to remove civil servants from London, large parts of the office are set to relocate to Newport in south Wales.
Ms Dunnell admits that the fact that the numbers wanting to relocate are "quite small" only adds to her problems. However, she insists the relocation programme will be completed on schedule by 2008, the end of her initial three-year term of office.


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