ONS keeps the Bank of England waiting

Red faces at the Office for National Statistics, where a delay has been called in publishing economic data that goes into the Blue Book, the annual publication of national accounts statistics.

The Treasury, the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility will not be pleased. ONS Chief Economist Joe Grice admitted this morning at a briefing that these customers for ONS outputs had indicated any delay was “not helpful”. I think that’s Whitehall-ese for bloody inconvenient.  

In the middle of one of the trickiest economic passages for many years, you don’t want late data. The delay will deprive the Bank of figures it needs for the November forecasting round. It is due to publish economic and inflation forecasts on 15 November – and won’t miss its deadline – but the Blue Book, which brings together all the economic data, will not now be out until 23 November. It should have appeared on 1 November.

ONS issued this morning details of the delays to different sets of statistics, with UK Economic Accounts slipping from 5 to 25 October, and the same delay for the Balance of Payments figures.The reason, it said, are changes in industrial and product classifications required by European law, a change in the deflator from RPI to CPI, and some improvements in the financial services area. It was an enormous amount of work, Grice said. He denied that budgets or staffing were the issue.

However, the delays will focus attention once again on how well ONS is doing its job. It is supposed to have upgraded all its systems under the Statistical Modernisation Programme and its successor, Odyssey (its name a clue as to how long it might take to complete). Between them, these two programmes ran from 2003 to 2008 at considerable cost, As Stephen Penneck, Director General of the ONS, made clear in an analysis published in 2009, lots went wrong.

He argues that the plan was visionary, but flawed. Its timetable was too short. When it became impossible to deliver the vision in the time available staff “rapidly became disillusioned and it then became very difficult to engage people in modernisation work.” A lot of time was spent starting projects that were not continued.  Those running the programme “sometimes felt isolated and unsupported”, while the ONS lacked most of the core skills in the depth needed. Buying them in soaked up a lot of the money the Treasury had provided for the programme.

While ONS was embroiled in this process it was also being removed to Newport under the then Government’s policy of dispersing government departments hither and yon. It was a move that many questioned. The Bank of England, in evidence to the Parliamentary Treasury Committee, said: “The relocation programme poses serious risks to the maintenance of the quality of macroeconomic data. If substantial numbers of ONS staff are unwilling to relocate, the loss of skilled individuals could have a severe impact on a range of statistics”. It may now feel that was a prescient criticism.

Officially ONS declares that moving to Wales has not damaged its work. But others argue that it has become inward-looking and detached from its users, and has found it impossible to recruit locally the calibre of staff it needs. A return to London is not on the cards, but today’s announcement will certainly rekindle those criticisms.