Paper by David Rosenfeld: “When the UK went into lockdown in mid-March 2020, government was faced with the dual challenge of managing the impact of closing down large parts of the economy and responding effectively to the pandemic. Policy-makers needed to make rapid decisions regarding, on the one hand, the extent of restrictions on movement and economic activity to limit the spread of the virus, and on the other, the amount of support that would be provided to individuals and businesses affected by the crisis. Traditional, official statistics, such as gross domestic product (GDP) or unemployment, which get released on a monthly basis and with a lag, could not be relied upon to monitor the situation and guide policy decisions.
In response, teams of data scientists and statisticians pivoted to develop alternative indicators, leading to an unprecedented amount of innovation in how statistics and data were used in government. This ranged from monitoring sewage water for signs of Covid-19 infection to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) developing a new range of ‘faster indicators’ of economic activity using online job vacancies and data on debit and credit card expenditure from the Clearing House Automated Payment System (CHAPS).
The ONS received generally positive reviews for its performance during the crisis (The Economist, 2022), in contrast to the 2008 financial crisis when policy-makers did not realise the extent of the recession until subsequent revisions to GDP estimates were made. Partly in response to this, the Independent Review of UK Economic Statistics (HM Treasury, 2016) recommended improvements to the use of administrative data and alternative indicators as well as to data science capability to exploit both the extra granularity and the timeliness of new data sources.
This paper reviews the elements that contributed to successes in using real-time data during the pandemic as well as the challenges faced during this period, with a view to distilling some lessons for future use in government. Section 2 provides an overview of real-time indicators (RTIs) and how they were used in the UK during the Covid-19 crisis. The next sections analyse the factors that underpinned the successes (or lack thereof) in using such indicators: section 3 addresses skills, section 4 infrastructure, and section 5 legal frameworks and processes. Section 6 concludes with a summary of the main lessons for governments that hope to make greater use of RTIs…(More)”.