An IT modernisation programme at the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) is running late and has failed to deliver on three of its projects, MPs have revealed.
The ONS is replacing its older computer systems, updating processes to tap the benefits of recent IT developments and re-engineering the national accounts. The upgrades are aimed at producing more reliable, coherent and timely data.
In March, the ONS admitted that this year’s publication of the national accounts would be incomplete due to the introduction of the new systems. Part of the National Accounts Blue Book – which carries estimates of the UK's gross national product, income and expenditure – would be “suspended” for 2007, it said.
But in a report on its inquiry into the efficiency programme in the Chancellor’s departments, the Commons Treasury committee said it had heard evidence from several ONS stakeholders that the programme “had not delivered on three of its projects”.
The ONS “did not dispute the general picture painted by other witnesses of the modernisation programme running behind schedule despite significant investment”, the report adds.
Officials from the Bank of England told the MPs that adjustments made to other regular ONS statistical products in order to keep the national accounts overhaul on track – such as reducing sample sizes for earnings and service sector surveys – “bring with them a sizeable risk of a reduction in data quality that will not be offset by planned improvements in methods.”
The MPs looked at a specific project within the modernisation programme aimed at introducing a web-based national system for statistical registration of births and deaths.
“This project suffered a setback when it was rolled out on a nationwide basis and it was found that access to the system was not possible for 46% of registration offices” the report says.
These offices had reverted to the old method of using their local networks while the ONS tried to get them online, the MPs found.
Financial savings should not be reported as efficiency savings “if they result in a reduction of outputs” – as with the web-based registration system – the MPs warned.
The modernisation programme is aimed at eventually creating a shared corporate data repository to hold all ONS statistical sources in a common environment. The overhaul is also expected to allow the standardisation of statistical methods, systems, processes and technology used to produce key ONS reports.
But the committee also highlighted the “absence of broadly supported and readily understood measurements of quality of service”.
“It seems ironic that the body charged with maintaining the standard of national statistics is unable to satisfy its users about its capacity to measure the quality of its own products,” the report says.