The Office for National Statistics is a bakery. Let me explain…

I love metaphors, and use them a lot when trying to articulate my thinking, and recently I’ve been thinking a lot about why the ONS website is such a complex set of products.

So indulge me when I ask you to think of the ONS as a bakery. As such you’d expect us to sell bread. And we do; lots of different types of bread, and most are specialist products: from fancy sourdough loaves (Unit Labour Costs) to impressive focaccias (Economic Activity, Faster Indicators) we combine some of the finest ingredients to bake our speciality products, of which there are many.

We also sell a range of flours (data sets, time series and APIs), for those who want to do some home baking, and also offer wholesale flour for those  who want to make produce at a more industrial scale.

We’ve got a diverse customer base, from those who know only we can supply the flour or indeed the artisan loaf they crave, but because we’re on the High Street we get a lot of passing custom from those who want something simpler.

And here’s the challenge – most of the effort in the bakery goes towards making our speciality products and milling the flour, and our shelves are filled with the work of our master bakers and millers.  

However, most of the people who come into the shop aren’t looking for anything fancy – just a sliced white (Are young people detached from their neighbourhoods?) or brown loaf (Gender pay gap in the UK) , perhaps some rolls (The cost of living alone). Yet we don’t make many, because we’re busy working on the speciality loaves and flour, and those that we do make are hard to find amidst the complex inventory of stock we have.

Now we could declare ourselves an artisan bakery, stop producing the humble loaf, and encourage a more selective clientele. But being on the High Street makes that difficult and we do think we’ve got an important role selling to a broad customer base. 

And we know there’s a clearer mark-up in the specialty loaves, and while as customers they are are perhaps fewer in number they’re the first to tell us if we’re not making the right products. 

So what do we do? We’ve got a cluttered shop, a complex inventory; and demand, but arguably not profit, is greatest from those for whom we make the fewest products.

That’s the challenge for the ONS website: What products do we make in order to be sure we’re satisfying a diverse user base with diverse needs; how do we manage our production effort so that it aligns with what needs; and how do we deliver those products to audiences in forms which make sense?

The ONS site has doubled in size in the last 4 years, largely driven by improved SEO but also because we’re producing more content than ever. Most of the traffic comes from Google searches, and most of those searches are from people on a home broadband connection.

50% of the visitors to the ONS website are citizen users, by far the largest audience group to the site, but the content that’s geared specifically for them makes up less than 2% of what we publish.

We make every effort to ensure the broadest audiences can take key messages from our headline outputs (Crime, Migration, GDP,Employment, Inflation etc) but they are still largely focused on  more specialist audiences and aren’t always answering the questions citizens have, which can tend to be more about personal relevance, local areas, the micro not the macro, and be more thematic and topical.

When we re-launched the site in 2016 the focus was on providing simpler user journeys and in particular what was considered to be the most important user journey – getting users to the latest statistical bulletin and/or accompanying data set. 

The bulletins we produce make up the bulk of the content products we publish – and many of them are specialist outputs, aimed at audiences looking for a very particular update to a very particular set of data. If you know what you want and where to find it then these bulletins are useful.

But if you’re not familiar with ONS releases, if the ONS adds, removes, makes changes to outputs, or if you want something framed in more general or broad terms, then the website can quickly become bewildering. 

This is also true of our statistical data – we have thousands of data sets and tens of thousands of time series of data, and for people looking for a cut of data, or some particular numbers, then locating what you want in a sea of numerical information is difficult. 

  • What’s going on in the UK economy?
  • What’s going on in my local, regional or devolved national economy?
  • How big a problem is inequality in my area, my country?
  • What’s happening in crime in my area?
  • How many robberies where there in Manchester last year?
  • How many people are out of work in England?
  • Where are the trade opportunities for the UK post-Brexit?
  • What’s happening with house prices?
  • What will the end of free movement in the EU mean for employment?
  • Will my job be affected by automation?
  • Why is the UK not as productive as France?
  • Is the UK becoming greener?
  • What do people spend their money on?
  • Are prices going up or down?
  • What’s the main measure of GDP?

Five years ago we agreed a content strategy to bring more clarity to our portfolio or products, and while we have made improvements, I don’t think anyone can say we’ve solved our challenges.

So to repeat – we’re a bakery. We bake lots of bread. Oh, and there’s flour too. But we might not sell enough of what you want, and you might not be able to find what you’re looking for. 

You’re the customer. What do you want us to do?