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Levelling up: accessible local public spending data is vital

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 22 Nov 2021

ICAEW member Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation – which provides independent regulation of all official statistics in the UK – says that economic and finance data must be concrete and comprehensible.

The aim of the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) is to enhance public confidence in the trustworthiness, quality and value of statistics produced by government. This is not easy, especially when the numbers in question are so difficult for those not in government to conjure with. For example, the UK Government borrowed an eye-watering £303bn in the year to March 2021 – these are very large numbers.

“When the public see in the media UK public spending headlines, the numbers are so astronomical, it’s difficult to make sense of them,” says Humpherson. “Some research conducted by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence in 2020 noted that public understanding of broad economic concepts is generally very weak, leading to questions about people’s ability to understand economic news stories and to evaluate the economic element of government performance.”

He continues: “However, where economic and finance statistics are seen as important for people’s personal finances, such as interest rates due to their impact on mortgages, there is a reasonable level of public understanding.”

Humpherson is emphatic that policymakers and civic leaders need to ensure economic data is concrete and comprehensible. “Statistics should serve the public good,” he says. “One of OSR’s four strategic priorities through to 2025 is to enhance people’s understanding of social and economic matters. We are keen that people are not put off by statistics they don’t relate to. People can only participate in making sound decisions and hold their elected politicians to account when they understand the data that affect their lives.”

Measuring the effectiveness of spending on public services – through clear presentation of spending data – is a key task of, among others, government statisticians and analysts. As statistics are used, and sometimes misused, in public debate, it is becoming more and more important to improve communication by making statistics – such as more-local public spending statistics – more accessible and easier to understand.

Levelling up is a case in point. This flagship policy requires local-level public spending data, he points out. “An important strand in levelling up is improving public services, especially where they are weaker, Humpherson says. “The measurement of public spending on public services at regional and sub-regional geographies is essential in assessing whether service weaknesses are a result of underspending. But levelling up is as much about social needs – such as health, wellbeing and education needs – being met at a local level, as it is about delivering good public services.”

But the numbers are not always as comparable as we might hope. Explicitly, devolution has had a significant impact on comparing public spending across geographies.

“Since 1999, there has been a devolution of spending power to the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Mayoralties in English regions,” says Humpherson. “Devolved administrations have been able to make different choices about how much to spend on public services and how to manage them. Official public finance statistics, particularly those for the UK’s individual countries and English regions, are key to supplying vital data on the relative spending on public service in the different communities.”

So just how good are public spending statistics at the UK country (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) and regional level? We asked OSR statistics regulator, Iain Russell, who has led much of OSR’s recent work on public expenditure statistics and he responds: “In 2019, we reported that the official figures on public spending at a UK nation (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and English region level are worthy of the public’s trust. They allow a comparison of government spending on services across different nations and regions.”

He continues: “Statisticians publishing these official statistics give useful guidance to help understand the published information. Members of the public, journalists, academics and researchers can all access this data for free, generating insight on public spending through articles and research papers.”

But there is a need for further review of local public spending data. Post-Brexit changes in sources of public funding and in the priorities for spending have been introduced, and new funds such as the Levelling Up fund are replacing European funding. What is more, as part of its existing work programme, the OSR is taking forward its work on regional and sub-national public finance statistics. 

“We are about to review ONS’s Country and Regional Public Sector Finances and seek to help the public know whether they can be confident in the data. If needed, we will seek an improved knowledge base and help for people to use the published statistics when examining the fairness of the distribution of funding across different communities,” says Russell. “If you have experiences or views that you think can help us, please contact us at regulation@statistics.gov.uk.”

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