Car crash on the Office for National Statistics website… Is it cos I is Welsh?

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 move 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 2828 results. Mercifully, only the first 1000 are displayed. Prior knowledge is required to realise that the first potentially relevant result appears in third place in 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 Brown.

Even real nerds 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 the new technology. Governments exhort us that we live in the technology-driven information age. Physician, heal thyself!

Paul Ormerod

As published in City Am on Wednesday 19th June 2013

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

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Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.