The past, present and future of ONS statistical bulletins

When my colleague Laura Churchill and I joined the ONS editorial team early in 2016, top of our to-do list was to review and improve statistical bulletins.

Backdrop to our bulletin work

An earlier review concluded that our bulletins were too long. They were all attempting to do the same thing, but in different ways. Some releases were using large sections of the same text every month and only updating the figures.

The statistical bulletin has always been the gold standard, the primary vehicle for providing users with context around the very latest publication of data. But over time the bulletin has become tasked with doing many, many more things – combining latest data with trends over time, highlighting significant change, adding analysis, explaining quality and methodology too.

In a metaphorical sense the bulletin was once a race car that has become a truck – loaded with information, bulldozing all before it.

Launching the pilot phase

A goal was set to produce more concise, focused and consistent bulletins that told a story through the data.

A pilot project run by Elizabeth McLaren and the Health Analysis and Life Events team tackled the Marriages in England and Wales: 2013 bulletin. This set the template for our work and introduced:

  • main points that were short, single sentences and acted as “headline figures”, highlighting the most interesting trends in the data
  • a statistician’s quote, framing the story of the data in a media-friendly way
  • a quality and methodology section replaced Background notes, which had become a “dumping” ground for a lot of information that didn’t fit elsewhere

What we did

Picking up the ball from Liz and her team, Laura and I fleshed out the ideas behind this revamp. We established a series of editorial principles that would underpin how ONS writes bulletins. These were:

  • bulletin means bulletin
  • tell a story through the data
  • find a topical angle
  • understand what your users want
  • don’t bury the story in stats
  • every section must have value
  • every section should be self-contained
  • write concisely in plain English

The main takeaway we wanted stakeholders to have is that writing a bulletin involved starting from scratch each time. The aim was to pull out what was new and interesting about the data and frame it as a compelling narrative.

Sprints leading up to theme days

We then formed a team consisting of people from across the ONS to iron out what these principles would look like in practice with a series of eight sprints of three weeks. Each of these sprints would focus on an economic statistics release in the run-up to the launch of the “branded theme days” in January 2017. On these days, related economic bulletins such as the UK house price index and Consumer price inflation would publish on the same day. There is also an overarching economic commentary tying all the trends together accompanying the releases.

For each sprint, the bulletin authors would take their most recent release and redraft it according to the new principles. The group would then provide feedback and recommended actions for a second draft. We would repeat the process for a third draft.

What was the result?

At the end of this series of sprints we had produced a comprehensive set of guidelines for writing statistical bulletins, which we published on Style.ONS and continue to iterate upon. This also includes a template document with the recommended structure that stakeholders can download and use.

The new style of bulletins received a positive response from our stakeholders, from both those who had been through the sprints and those who had seen the results. We noticed bulletins written by business areas we hadn’t met with were adopting the new guidelines.

What we have been doing since

Following the launch of theme days in January, Laura and I began meeting with business areas outside of the original sprints ahead of the publication of their upcoming bulletins. We would go through a streamlined version of the same process where we would review drafts and provide feedback and guidance. We have continued meeting with stakeholders regularly since, working our way through our monthly, quarterly and annual bulletins.

We’ve definitely noticed a marked shift in the format and style of bulletins. They are in the main shorter, with more focus on the story that the data tells.

What we will do next

We plan to do three things next. Firstly we will be holding catch-up meetings with the teams behind some of the earlier bulletins we worked on.

We will also be holding open-invite developmental sessions across sites where people can drop by to discuss their bulletin.

Lastly, we will look into holding special training modules looking into specific areas of writing bulletins that people may want guidance on, such as writing concise, single-sentence main points or active, snappy headings.

Understanding bulletins and user needs

On a more fundamental level there’s a wider still question that needs to be addressed – how do bulletins meet our users’ needs?

We know that the majority of traffic to our website, and to bulletins, comes from people who typed a search into Google. So how does their need differ from those users who come to the website each month, every month, to get the latest update in construction figures, for example?

ONS has a diverse set of users and it’s very challenging creating statistical products that meet all their needs simultaneously, or to create a suite of products that end up in the hands of the right users at the right time.

So we want to do more research about the role of the bulletin in the context of our user needs. And once we better understand the user, we’ll better understand what needs to happen next with bulletins as a product.