Why the British Government just doesn't 'get' data

Many years ago, I sat in on a talk by the Chief Executive of a major oil company. The very small audience was mostly made up of his middle managers from every corner of the globe. At the end, he invited questions. As one of only 3 outsiders in the room, I was amazed, indeed in awe, of this man’s deep knowledge and understanding of every corner of this massive business – everywhere.

I learned that that’s what running a business is all about. KNOWING it.

And the same thing applies to countries. One of the reasons why the US is the world’s most powerful economy – and is likely over the long term to remain so – is that ‘its’ knowledge of itself is profound, systematic and updated every 5 years. The US has just completed its Economic Census.

The quinquennial US Economic Census has a number of pertinent features but for me the most profound are firstly its detail and secondly, that its not optional.

Firstly, there isn’t just one Census form – there is one for EACH industry. For manufacturing alone, there are around 250 different forms. The form’s complexity depends on the industry – for example, the Census form for computer manufacturing is 12 pages. If you look at the form, you can get a feel for just how much is learned about manufacturing a computer to inform Government, to inform more efficient manufacturing, and so much else. This really is useful Big Data.

The letter that accompanies the form points out that “Title 13, United States Code, Sections 131 and 224,
requires your response (emphasis in the original). In the UK, this would be seen as REGULATION with capital letters.

The same letter points out that “Census data are essential for business and Government decision making” and the Census bureau identifies just how useful census data is for individual businesses.

But in the UK – as The Economist points out – we are on course for deep ignorance about ourselves and our economy. Far from learning more, we’re set to abandon the only Census we’ve got.

And that’s why the British Government doesn’t ‘get’ data. And why the US is likely to remain the most powerful economy on the planet.

PS: Of course, if you’re here wanting to learn from there – then the 2013 US Economic Census is a great place to start.

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