Experts voice fears over loss of government data experts

MPs have taken evidence issuing a warning over the impact of an exodus from Whitehall of statistical talent – at a time when government wants to make better use of data

Watchdog MPs have been warned that the government could face losing some of its most talented statistics experts at a time when there is a growing need for data expertise.

Members of Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee were presented with the stark projection at a recent session on the government’s use of evidence and data.

Hetan Shah, who is chief executive of the British Academy and was previously executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said he was concerned about the potential for an exodus of stats talent from government when the flow of expertise needs to be in the opposite direction.

Shah said that as demand for data and analysis grow, resources in the Office for National Statistics and the civil service more generally needed to “grow commensurately”. He said areas such as education, social care and the justice sector all have data gaps, and that legacy systems with out-of-date software are another issue for analysts.

“The other thing that worries me is that now everyone – every company in the country – wants to hire a data scientist, and most statisticians are rebadging themselves as data scientists,” he said. “How will the government hold onto talented people? That’s an issue for the future.”

Gemma Tetlow, chief economist at the Institute for Government, agreed there is a need for more resourcing for analysis in government, although she told Thursday’s session that being more disciplined about what data to continue collecting could also help.

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Tetlow said it is rare for people to identify bits of data that are no longer needed and suggested a greater degree of questioning about where effort should be focused.

She added that in addition to the data gaps identified by Shah, the civil service also lacks data on skills within its own ranks.

“There’s a bit of lack of an overall strategy within the civil service about what data skills are required and where those data skills exist,” she said. “We don’t have good data on who in the civil service has those skills, so when it comes to a new problem it’s sometimes hard to identify who has the skills to work in the team to interpret the data most effectively.”

Tetlow said recent IfG research on ministerial private offices suggests that some ministers are starting to have data scientists in their teams as a “very direct resource”.

“One thing we found that is a bit more concerning in some of our other work on ministers is finding that they don’t always know who in their department can provide that sort of data analytical support to them,” she said. “They don’t always know that they have a chief scientist or a chief economist or a chief data officer.”

Tetlow said there is potential for improved induction processes for new ministers so make them of who is on hand to help them interpret information.

Elsewhere in the session, Tetlow said the IfG had found unconstructive evidence of departments only sharing particular data as a “power strategy” to advance their own policy goals above those of other parts of government.

She said work on the government’s pandemic response had found “strategic sharing of economic evidence” intended to put forward arguments for the Treasury that were pitched against strategic sharing of health evidence.

“We were quite concerned that that was not an effective way of coming to decisions within the centre of government because of the inherent need to properly understand both types of evidence and, in fact, to understand how both work together rather than seeing them in isolation,” she said.

Jim Dunton

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