Chief Executive of the British Academy calls for greater access to data and transparency around its use in policymaking

10 Nov 2023

The Chief Executive of the British Academy has called on the UK Government to publish the data and evidence underpinning policy decisions alongside policy announcements, and urged statistics organisations and local authorities to close evidence gaps and make existing data more accessible.

Hetan Shah was speaking at the House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC)’s second evidence session for its enquiry into transforming the UK’s evidence base. The enquiry is examining how officials produce statistics and analysis, how demands for data are changing in the modern data-driven world, and whether the privacy of citizens is being adequately protected as new and innovative sources of data become available to decision makers.

During a wide-ranging discussion, Hetan called for greater transparency around the use of data by decision makers – one of the recommendations from the British Academy’s landmark Shaping the COVID Decade report – and urged the Committee to consider setting up an inquiry around evidence-informed policy.

“When Government talk about policy, they should also be publishing their chain of reasoning and evidence underneath that,” he said.  “More evidence transparency across policymaking is a real opportunity.”

Hetan also called for the UK statistical system to consult more effectively with the research community about the data that they need.

“Independent researchers all say that we can really help to understand what is happening in our country if we have access to that data and if it is linked in a really useful way,” Hetan said. “Some of that access has been improving – we have the Secure Research Service [which gives accredited researchers secure access to de-identified, unpublished data in order to work on research projects] – but there are still many issues, and we need more widespread geographical points of access. The [Office for National Statistics’] API [Application Programming Interface, which makes datasets and other data available] allowing not just individual researchers but actually machine access to that data, is still at an early stage. It is working okay but there is still not a lot of data behind it so that would be an area we would really like to see improve.”

As examples of other areas where access to data could be improved, Hetan cited the International Energy Agency, which currently charges for data that will be vital in the fight against climate change, as well as the postcode address file. He also called for data gaps in areas such as education exports, social care and justice data to be addressed.

The Committee later discussed the UK’s census, which was last conducted in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hetan noted that due to the timing of its collection, some of the most recent census data is ‘quite skewed’ and suggested four tests which could help improve the volume and quality of evidence captured by the UK census.

“One is that this cannot just be a cost-saving measure: it must actually be for statistics. Secondly, the admin data needs to be strong enough and... take into account the local area, capturing the most marginalised in society. Thirdly, the admin data must be sufficiently stable. Are there some binding commitments that need to be made, be that legislatively or not, that would actually safeguard those datasets?

“Finally, there is finding some way for record preservation for historians. If you look at what historians do with the census, it is incredibly important. It would be a real shame if you moved admin data and we did not have those datasets for the future.”

The Committee also heard from Chris Morris, Chief Executive of fact-checking organisation Full Fact, which won the British Academy’s prestigious President’s Medal in 2022, and Dr Gemma Tetlow, Chief Economist at the Institute for Government.

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