Giving oral evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee focuses the mind. The two-hour-plus session of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) that I attended along with Sir Andrew Dilnot (Chair of the UK Statistics Authority) and Neil McIvor (Chief Statistician at DWP) was something of a marathon for all concerned.
Our briefing team, led by Vanessa Holden (UK Statistics Authority Parliamentary and Public Affairs Manager), drew on the support of colleagues from across the Government Statistical Service and the UK Statistics Authority Regulation Team to provide those of us in the hot seats with everything we would need on the day. This was a magnificent effort.
We could anticipate questioning on the Bean Review of Economic Statistics, our plans for radical change to meet the current challenges in official statistics and recent high-profile issues around statistics including migration, trade and EU finances. We had comprehensive assistance on all of these – hopefully those involved did not feel too battered by all the queries we fired at them in advance to help prepare ourselves. We also had to think laterally about other questions that could come up, and be ready to be on our game with a response that would help the committee understand our situation.
In the public eye
This kind of event is a real reminder of just how varied and how much in the public eye our work is.
On the morning of the hearing we gathered in the central lobby of Parliament. As we reviewed all the material available to us, we checked out some last-minute details on trade flows with Rotterdam (which did come up) and migration assumptions in population projections (which did not). Then we went up to the committee floor to be met by a clerk who updated us on timings and the order of business.
At 9:30 we were ushered in and took our places.
Select committees are about accountability, and there were lots of pertinent questions about our performance as a statistical system. I find that this kind of questioning really makes me think about how well we are doing and helps me see our work through the eyes of others. It is hard, though, to come up with a response on the spot that is precise enough to avoid misinterpretation by committee members (or commentators, after the event, who have time to review every word).
It did not take long before reports of the session were appearing online and in the newspapers, each with a different perspective on what we had said. When you look back and reflect on experiences like these, there are always points from which you can learn. In this case, it could not be clearer just how central our information and advice is to the debate about the big decisions facing our country. It is a real spur to the whole of the Government Statistical Service to keep producing the best possible numbers and presenting them clearly so they can be accepted and used with confidence.