Wednesday 16 October 2019

The CSO is not just dry statistics - it is there to improve lives

CSO boss Pádraig Dalton says the national statistics agency needs to do more than provide data, writes Paul Melia, he wants it to develop insights for policymakers, the public sector and business

Pádraig Dalton wants the CSO’s output to be used in a more integrated fashion that can inform policymaking across a wide area – but also says it can never become embroiled in partisan political issues. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Pádraig Dalton wants the CSO’s output to be used in a more integrated fashion that can inform policymaking across a wide area – but also says it can never become embroiled in partisan political issues. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Pádraig Dalton

Central Statistics Office (CSO) boss Pádraig Dalton is a reluctant interviewee. Not one for the limelight, he says data, not personalities, is what matters.

And it's that data, he says, which provides insights into the lives we lead and is the "raw material for accountability".

"Traditionally, the view has been that the role of national statistical institutes (NSIs) is to provide evidence for decision-makers, whether policy-makers or the government, or businesses looking to invest. But statistics are not just evidence for decision-making, they provide the raw material for accountability," he says.

"Joe Soap needs an independent, objective organisation which can tell him the true story of whether employment is up or down, incomes are up or down, if poverty is up and down.

"That allows them to have an objective source of the truth. If they have that, they can make decisions on holding decision-makers in government, business or whatever to account. I think it's really important."

A career statistician, Mr Dalton (49) joined the CSO in November 1991 and was appointed director general in May 2012. This is his first interview since being appointed. The married father-of-three is a member of the European Statistical System Committee and chair of a high-level UN group tasked with the modernisation of statistical production and services.

A lot has changed since 1991, when he started his career. More changes are coming.

"All of our data was compiled by primary data sources or surveys we conducted ourselves. The CSO was probably an inward-looking organisation. We did our job, didn't make a fuss, published the data but there were no press conferences or engagement with the media.

"In the post-truth environment, where there is no longer a single source of truth, if we're to stay relevant, we have to change and meet the demands of our users, who are looking for data and statistics, but also knowledge and insight. They're looking to see what's going on.

"A lot of our outputs have been siloed - you'd have a release on the inflation figures and a release on financial accounts, on employment and a separate release on earnings. It's useful, but you're not telling the story behind the data. You're not saying what's going on in the economy.

"You have to link what's happening in the national accounts with what's happening in the labour markets. If GDP is going up, what's happening in the labour markets? Are we seeing an increase in employment?

"Who are the unemployed? How is that impacting on things like people's expenditure? Are they spending more? What's happening with poverty? Who is in poverty?

"Better data, information and insight lead to better decisions and more cost-effective decisions. But they also lead to better information for the citizens trying to make decisions.

"Lots of people use our data to decide if they should set up a business, for example.

"We have to become an efficient organisation, to use the data that's collected, subject to confidentiality."

The CSO has a core staff of 700 and around 85pc of the statistics they produce are required for the European Commission. While he is under the aegis of the Department of the Taoiseach, the director general is entirely independent on statistical matters.

The CSO holds wide-ranging powers to collect data, but it cannot access health or criminal records. Dalton says the organisation gets very high response rates to surveys such as the Census because it is trusted.

"We will never put anything into the public domain which identifies anybody. Not only is it written in law, it's one of our core values. We're not interested in the individual.

"We're interested in the stories that relate to groups of people, whether at county level or people working in particular sectors of the economy."

But that's not to say that concerns around release of some data does not cause concerns. Dalton says the CSO is in discussions with the Data Protection Commissioner regarding plans to use mobile phone data to produce information on the areas which tourists visit.

He says there is a "huge gap" in relation to information on what parts of the country are popular and that mobile phone data could identify areas visited and highlight parts of the country where the tourism offering needed to be improved or promoted.

The Commissioner has raised concerns, but the CSO insists that any information will be anonymised and no personal details, such as calls, names, account details, texts or internet usage will be gathered or used.

"One of the gaps we have around tourism statistics is we don't have good regional statistics. We know how many come into the country and how much they're spending, but we don't know where they're going," he says.

"Let's say I'm French and I come into Ireland through Dublin. When I turn on my mobile phone, the home network of the phone is France and that's captured. What we want to do is get the mobile operators to provide us with a small piece of information - a sample of their anonymised records, and an aggregated location detector at town or county level.

"It's a research project and we haven't looked for data yet. The question is can we capture that information safely, while protecting the identity of the individual? Our view is yes."

The research project is part of ongoing efforts to provide more insight, which includes plans for an in-depth series of special reports on life in Ireland. He says the statistical body needs to "tell a story" using data around employment, incomes, deprivation and other data sources, to continue to remain "relevant".

"We have been talking about a 'life in' series," he says. "Life in rural Ireland - what's that like? You can't tell that in the context of statistics on employment alone. You tell that in terms of earnings, experience of poverty, well-being and engagement with the community.

"That's what life and society are like and increasingly we have to produce outputs which tell a story. It could be life in rural Ireland, in urban Ireland. What about life for a lone parent? Life of a commuter?

"We decided in the last 12-18 months that the environment in which we work has changed. If we don't change, very quickly we're not going to be relevant. We really need to engage with the person on the street. Our data can help them in their lives. I'm a GAA man and people often contact me looking for the number of kids aged x so they can put in funding for a new changing room. The data can be used to help people in their local area. Fundamentally, if a national statistical institute isn't relevant, it's nothing."

Among the major challenges is gathering all the data sources held by public bodies to help provide better evidence for decision-making. He also wants to improve public awareness of the organisation.

Dalton says a NSI can be "the memory of the State, using facts", so should it point out policy failures to Government?

"No," he says. "We're really protective of our political and professional independence and if we cross that line into commenting on policy, it's fair game.

"But what we can do is tell stories through facts. We might have been a bit cautious in the past. We can become much better at answering questions and providing insights. If you do it with the facts, we're on straight ground."

What about politicians or others misquoting the 'facts' or utilising a narrow interpretation to suit themselves? "Where we see mis-use of data, we tend to ring the person. We do the same with the media sometimes," he says.

He would like to make some changes, such as introducing an annual Census. This would require data sources across the public sector to be linked.

"I was speaking to a colleague in the Netherlands who told me he was moving house. Before he moved house, he had to inform the local authority he had bought a house and the minute he registered he got the ESB and gas turned on, he got access to the local schools. If you have that type of system, it allows for integration in the delivery of services.

"If we moved to an administrative census - which I would really like to happen because I think it would add huge insight - but every five years you do a boosted sample of 200,000 households to capture information on commuting patterns, religion and so on, you can use that sample to model the population."

He'd like more data analysts to join the CSO, to work across economics, globalisation and social affairs. Dalton knows he cannot compete on salary with tech giants, but says the CSO is a "great place to work and there's a lot of data to work with".

He has some concerns. There's so much data being published it heightens the risk of "information overload".

He's also uneasy that seven out of every 10 people will not go to an official statistics website for specific queries, but will instead use Google.

A measure of success will be giving people the tools to "defend themselves", he says.

"If we can engage with the guy in the street, to get them to understand what we do, that's when I think we will be really relevant. I think the public will be defending themselves.

"Nobody's perfect and I don't believe in perfection. All I want is the CSO to be better tomorrow than today."

His term in office expires in just two years and he's not sure if it can be extended. It's not a pressing concern.

"I'm still a civil servant. To be quite honest I don't know what happens, but I haven't started thinking about that.

"It's CSO first, second and third. The personal stuff will take care of itself."

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