Style over substance: Public sector has failed again to grasp new technology

Paul Ormerod
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THE website of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has recently been re-designed. A perfectly functional, low-tech website has been transformed into a really cool delivery platform. It looks great. The only drawback is that it is very difficult to find any useful data on it.

The ONS is the basic source of information not just about economic data in the UK, but a lot of social data as well. The institution has recently been the subject of widespread criticism about the reliability of its estimates of GDP data. Its transfer of more functions to Newport in South Wales has raised doubts about the quality of the staff willing to work there.

Although the ONS has been revising upwards its initial view of the state of the economy during 2012, this is not a new phenomenon. As more information comes in over time, a more accurate estimate can be made. Revisions to the past have been a feature of preliminary GDP estimates for many years now, and there is no clear evidence that the ONS is suddenly performing worse than it used to in this respect.

But finding data about the past on the website, even data from just a few years ago, now presents a major challenge. For example, it is interesting to compare how the economy performed during the recent recession with what happened in previous downturns in the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s. So we type “GDP” into the search box on the ONS website. This returns no fewer than 2,828 results. Mercifully, only the first 1,000 are displayed. Prior knowledge is required to realise that the first potentially relevant result appears in third place on the list, under the title “Second estimate of GDP data tables, Q1 2013”. Not a lot of people know that, as Michael Caine allegedly used to say.

Once the Excel file is downloaded and opened, it becomes apparent that it is, in fact, useless for the immediate purpose. There is indeed data for the past, but only as far back as 1997 – Year Zero of the Great Helmsman Gordon Brown.

Even a computer nerd would struggle. Data does exist from 1948, but how to find it? Each series in the national accounts has its own four letter identifier. For real GDP (expenditure based, of course) it is “ABMI” – try it as a question in your next pub quiz. But even if you know this, a search will no longer give you the data itself, but merely the name of the publication in which it appears.

The ONS has abandoned paper publications, so its “improved” website is now the only source of its data. This expensive shambles is nothing to do with the move to Newport. It is yet another example of the fact that the public sector really struggles with new technology. Governments exhort us that we live in the technology-driven information age. Physician, heal thyself.

Paul Ormerod is an economist at Volterra Partners, a director of the think-tank Synthesis and author of Positive Linking: How Networks Can Revolutionise the World.