Reform the ONS

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reform-the-ons

Having spent the last week trying to come up with accurate statistics on the public sector, I can confidently state that the online information available from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is a mess.

Information is hidden in tables that cannot be easily found and when it is finally dug up it is not in a logical format and incomplete without explanation of why this is so. It should not take hours to get access to the number of people employed in the public sector. Upon my inability to find some bssic statistics on public sector pay I sent them an email; despite the prompt reply it was to a page that did not work. I have put in another request and have yet to hear back from them; even if they do get back to me, I don’t expect much help from them.

This failure to provide information in a digestible form is a long way from the model of open government that politicians are so keen to promote. The lack of maneuverability on the website is indicative of all government despite its obsession and waste on new technology. We do not need the policy analysis present in the ONS publications, just the statistics with background information on their collection. Outsiders can do the policy analysis.

Apart from the core functions – measuring the National Accounts, the census, Consumer Prices index (CPI) and the Retail Prices Index (RPI) – most of the statistics are not useful. The ONS needs fundamental reform in order to meet the informational demands of the 21st century. We deserve value for the £1.2 billion we are spending from 2007 to 2012.

The statistics need to be available in easily searchable and comparable formats. The US are doing slightly better with www.usaspending.gov, but it is perversely obsessed with graphics and performance metrics and is remarkably costly. Instead we just need clear and consistent facts.

Perhaps though this is all too much to ask. After all, an understanding of public choice theory suggests that it is not in the government’s interest: “crafty governments use artful marketing to create fiscal illusion--a false picture--to hide from taxpayers how much they pay, where the money goes and what the true long-term costs will be."