Improving the discoverability of UK official statistics

This is a case study for Principle V2: Accessibility

The UK’s diffuse statistical landscape

There are many public bodies that produce official statistics across the GSS. It is the totality of these statistical families that make up the UK’s statistical landscape. The data provided by these statistics helps to support the day-to-day running of government by:

  • Providing published evidence to help assess the impact of government policies and legislation and to evaluate outcomes
  • Helping to refine the delivery of front-line services by assessing the effectiveness of operations and identifying areas in need of improvement.

However, because the publication model for the UK’s statistical landscape is widely diffused, users must often search a large number of official websites to find the data they want. Many users are also at a disadvantage, if they are not experienced in navigating the UK’s statistical landscape.

The GSS Interactive Tools

The web-based GSS Interactive Tools allow users to search, filter, and explore official statistics from a single location, across a range of thematic areas. The tools achieve this by linking users to statistics of interest, while also allowing them to filter by numerous categories, including:

  • Statistical theme
  • Country or countries of interest
  • Organisation that produces the statistics
  • Geographic scales – from country-wide level, down in some cases, to scales smaller than local authority level
  • Frequency of publication – such as one off (ad hoc) publications, once a decade censuses, or weekly statistics
  • Number of years the statistics cover

The GSS Interactive Tools have been designed to work with common assistive technologies, such as screen readers, and adhere to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines “AAA” ratings (gold standard). The tools are also mobile and tablet native and the subject areas are regularly updated based on user needs (i.e. weekly for health statistics to quarterly for housing statistics), to ensure that content remains relevant.

Making official statistics more accessible

In November 2017, OSR published a systemic review of housing and planning statistics. The review showed that the diffuse nature of this particular landscape acted as a barrier to accessing data. This meant that UK housing and planning statistics, as a whole, fell short of the Code’s Accessibility principle.

In response, GSS members formed a Housing and Planning Statistics Working Group, including colleagues from many government departments and the Devolved Administrations. To improve the accessibility of official statistics, the group  worked to provide proper signposting for users and potential users. This led to the development and launch of the GSS Interactive Tools for housing and planning statistics in September 2019.

The success of the tools, coupled with their reproducible nature, has since led to the inclusion of other statistical areas. The tools now include hundreds of statistical releases on the topics of:

This increased thematic coverage and successful engagement with users through social media and blogs, has driven continued growth in the number of users regularly using the tools.

Feedback

Feedback from users and stakeholders has been very positive and continues to come from a wide range of sectors, including:

  • Businesses
  • Charities
  • Universities
  • Local and national governments

The usefulness of a single access point for statistics is a common theme within the feedback. User-research continues to help refine the accessibility, content, and functionality of the tools. This ensures that the information provided is clear, concise, and does not rely on expert knowledge. This helps to further increase the accessibility of UK statistics to a broader range of potential users. These improvements have, in part, led to the nomination of the tools for a GSS Excellence Award.

OSR has also highlighted the positive impact that the tools have had on the accessibility of official statistics, via its:

Summary

The GSS Interactive Tools showcase how following accessibility best practice increases the value of official statistics and data, for users and potential users. Built to meet a broad range of needs, the tools accommodate people with different levels of subject knowledge and different accessibility requirements. This means that the burden of finding the information users need is less when using the tools. This helps to open up official statistics to a greater number of people who would have otherwise not have accessed them, including users of screen readers and other assistive technologies.

Monitoring and reducing survey burden

This is a case study for Principle V5: Efficiency and proportionality. 

The GSS publishes guidance on monitoring and reducing respondent burden when carrying out statistical surveys, which directly supports Principle V5 of the Code.  

The guidance recommends that in order to monitor respondent burden, statistics producers should: 

  • collect data on the respondent burden associated with their statistical surveys 
  • estimate the costs of compliance to give a measure of respondent burden 
  • compare the costs of compliance with previous years’ figures 
  • investigate any substantial changes and take appropriate action to try to reduce the burden, and 
  • explain to users any variations in compliance costs caused by changes in the nature of a survey, such as a sample increase.  

The guidance provides the example of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) annual statistics tracking the compliance costs incurred by businesses and local authorities in complying with its statistical surveys. 

The guidance also recommends that each department appoints a Survey Control Liaison Officer (SCLO), who is responsible for supporting their statistical Head of Profession in monitoring and reducing respondent burden. It highlights the network of SCLOs managed by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) Survey Control Unit, which produce guidance on what is expected of SCLOs in the Northern Ireland context. NISRA also produce annual assessments of the burden on the businesses, households and individuals completing the statistical surveys issued by Northern Ireland Departments each year. 

In terms of reducing burden, the GSS guidance identifies a range of actions to ease the burden placed on survey respondents. It highlights how the National Travel Survey (NTS) has implemented several solutions to better meet user needs whilst reducing the burden for participants and interviewers. These include:  

  • an annual review of the NTS questionnaire achieved by identifying sections of the survey which take the longest to complete, in order to remove questions where the burden is disproportionate to user needs 
  • conducting cognitive testing on any new questions before being approved to add to the NTS, to assesses how well participants understand each question and the level of burden it creates  
  • setting up an online panel to manage the large volume of requests for new questions, creating shorter and more targeted surveys towards sub-groups where it would be disproportionate to ask everyone the full NTS, and with much quicker turnaround of results, and 
  • the development of a digital travel diary and extensive research to establish how a digital diary could simultaneously reduce burden on respondents and interviewers and improve data quality. 

Feedback has been positive, with interviewers commenting the NTS is now taking less time to complete and early analysis indicates the survey is shorter. The results of the user feedback survey, cognitive testing and digital diary developments can be found on the NTS pages on GOV.UK 

This example highlights some of the best practice already undertaken within the GSS to support the monitoring and reduction of respondent burden when carrying out statistical surveys, and the GSS guidance available to statistics producers looking to undertake such activities.