The discussion with Jonathan Athow, Deputy National Statistician for Economic Statistics at the ONS, focused on two areas: the difficulties caused by the pandemic on the regular production of statistics, and the creation of green statistics in relation to the UN COP26 conference on climate change.
Jonathan discussed how the ONS has been dealing with a variety of problems recently facing the production of growth, inflation and labour market statistics in the UK. Some of these related to the pandemic, for example the challenges when moving the Labour Force Survey from face-to-face meetings towards telephone. Others have been long-standing, such as the rise of e-commerce or the measurement challenges related to the telecommunications sector, data usage and streaming. The ONS has responded to ensure the viability of the various statistics, for example using more real-time employee income data from HMRC. In relation to the labour market, of considerable importance to policy makers at present, he emphasised the importance of examining in detail the flows across key sectors to understand the dynamics better.
Turning towards environmental statistics, the way in which carbon flows through the UK economy is not currently well understood. The ONS is world leading in terms of ‘natural capital’ accounting, with important work also being carried out in Holland, New Zealand and Scandinavian countries. In his view, classic GDP measures still have considerable use, for example in terms of assessing fiscal sustainability or setting monetary policy. However, the externalities related to economic activity need to be understood. National income accounting should stand alongside new measures examining such issues as well-being and the natural environment to allow more informed decisions to be taken.
Jonathan ended the interview with some thoughts looking back on his six years at the ONS, emphasising the capabilities and resilience of the organisation, and the importance of communication to the public as well as to experts such as SPE members.
Mr Athow is Deputy National Statistician for Economic Statistics at the ONS. His career began as an economic adviser in H M Treasury, working on such areas as health and work incentives. He moved onto become chief economists of Revenue & Customs, before moving to the ONS in 2015. He is leaving the ONS at the end of October and moving back to HMRC working on areas such as new taxes and customer interaction.
Sorry: IE8 cannot display our video content.