‘It shouldn’t need a war this time’: a short story about data and digital.


One hundred years ago, Geoffrey Drage was unimpressed with the civil service. Specifically, he was unimpressed with the government’s data. And although he didn’t know it, the only thing that could solve his problem was World War II.

By 1915, statistics weren’t a new concept to the British government. The first full count of people had been published more than a century ago. More ambitious data gathering exercises followed.

But ever since that first census, men in top hats queued up to list the defects of official numbers. They chided wasteful work — data tables with details on the number of pubs licensed to keep bagatelle tables. They decried dodgy appointments — such as making the journalist Albany Fonblanque head of the Board of Trade’s statistical division, a man whose statistical bona fides didn’t go much deeper than having a rather excellent haircut.

Having reached the front of this queue, Drage presented a paper on ‘The Reorganisation of Official Statistics and a Central Statistical Office’ to the Royal Statistical Society.

Unlike past complainers, Drage was taut and clear in his argument. He diagnosed six problems with government statistics.

They’re worth setting out in full:

  1. a lack of cooperation between departments
  2. the absence of central supervision
  3. publications serving conflicting purposes, confusing users
  4. reports containing figures that only promoted how much got done
  5. compulsory powers being too few and rarely applied
  6. poor collection of statistics by under-valued front-line staff

He recommended creating a central authority above departments, and charging it with addressing these problems. It would change the machinery of government. It would report to the Prime Minister.

Four years later, having gathered 20 Lords and 30 MPs to support his manifesto, Drage asked for two more things. Money and political backing.

This story may sound familiar. So if, like me, you believe history can be repetitive, it’s worth noting what happened next.

With the support of parliamentarians, Drage sent a petition to David Lloyd-George, the Prime Minister. This was considered by the Cabinet in 1920; fully five years after Drage’s original paper went to the Royal Statistical Society. Cabinet considered it, and asked for a committee of departments — whose authority was to be shared with Drage’s proposed new unit, remember — to look at the proposal.

They didn’t fancy it much.

‘We are satisfied that while the existence of a Central Statistical Office would give rise to constitutional and other difficulties it would do little if anything to remove the conditions which at present limit the production of national statistics.’

— Report on the collection and presentation of National Statistics, 1921

Instead, to iron out those coordination kinks, the group recommended that a ‘permanent consultative committee of statistical officers’ be set up. The new committee would have no power to make recommendations to the Cabinet Office or the Treasury. Nor could it invite representations from experts outside government. Nor would it have a political sponsor. Or a budget.

This committee met ‘occasionally’ during the 1920s. I couldn’t find any minutes from those meetings, but it’s fun to speculate on what they talked about.

I imagine there was a lot of sighing.

And then nothing much happened for two decades. Apart from more complaining. Lots of reports criticised the ‘generally ineffective’ body, and numbers they oversaw. ‘Generally ineffective’ might sound mild, but from the mouths of officials, that is damning criticism indeed.

What’s striking about this story is that nobody in government ever disagreed that things were broken. Nobody questioned that the issue was weighty enough to be worthy of Ministerial time. But the will and courage to push through changes to the government machine wasn’t there.

26 years and two major ministerial reviews into statistics later, the government’s approach to data was still half-cocked, stuck in siloes.

Meanwhile, Britain’s administration was having to manage the country through the darkest of days. It lacked the tools to do so. In frustration, Winston Churchill personally told the Cabinet Secretary to sort out the government’s numbers, as their unreliability was harming war planning. And finally, Drage’s proposal was taken seriously. A Central Statistics Office was created in 1941.

It’s a very silly thing to say, but it can’t be said clearly enough: we should not need a war to get on with fixing the government’s data problems. One hundred years on, I’m hopeful we won’t.

But we will need people all over the public sector with the courage to come up with better answers than new talking shops. Clever people from outside government to come and help. And we need to keep giving all those people the power to do things, not just to talk about them.

We’ve already got those people. They shouldn’t have to wait for a war.

#ofthegovernment

(This post owes most of its substance to Keeping Score, by Reg Ward and Ted Doggett. Cover image is a shot of the front cover, picture credit to HMSO.)