National statistician: ‘Digital census presents new opportunities and challenges’

Sir Ian Diamond discusses the use of data during the pandemic, and how the ONS will balance this ongoing work with the demands of the national census next year

Credit: PA Video/PA Wire/PA Images

In a year unlike any other, senior figures from across the civil service took part in PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World’s annual perm secs round-up to discuss how the unprecedented 12 months affected them and their organisation, and look ahead to 2021.

Click here to read more from a wide selection of government leaders.

Data provided by the Office for National Statistics has helped support coronavirus response. National statistician Professor Sir Ian Diamond (pictured above) discusses the organisation’s work and its plans for next year.

What are you proudest of your department or agency achieving in 2020?
I am most proud of the adaptability and flexibility shown by all my colleagues throughout the ONS as we have sought to rapidly meet the challenges presented by the pandemic, whilst also balancing this against continued critical delivery of business as usual services. For example, over a very short period of time we were able to set up the most representative community surveillance study of COVID-19, as well as setting up surveys to look at the business impact and behavioural changes caused by the pandemic. At the same time, it has remained crucial that our ramp up to Census 2021 has continued, as we seek next year to deliver the first digitally driven census. 

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?
The hardest part of being a leader in 2020 has been the scale of the uncertainty thrust upon the organisation by recent events. There has not been one part of our department that has remained untouched by the far-reaching effects of the pandemic. Whilst these times have been challenging, I have been amazed by how my colleagues have continually exceeded and excelled at overcoming issue after issue to ensure that we remain as ready today to provide and support decision makers with insight as we were before the pandemic struck. 

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?
The coming year will require continual innovation to provide timely insights to decision-makers and the public as we enter into the next phase of the pandemic. Beyond this, Census 2021 goes live next year which, as I have said above, will be the first of its kind using digital platforms as its primary medium of delivery. This, in itself, presents a new set of exciting opportunities and challenges to overcome.   

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?
I, like so many others, have friends and family not just up and down the country but also throughout the four nations of the UK and beyond. Whilst it will be different this year not being able to travel as freely, I will use these hours usually lost on the motorways to pause, reflect and refresh ahead of a very busy 2021. 


Sam Trendall

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