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>99% reduction in data errors | 99.5% user buy-in

Office for National Statistics: User-centricity and rapid value delivery

Through our support for the alpha phase of the ONS's Electronic Data Collection programme, the organisation has shifted to a more user-centric and experimental approach to product development. The results are a big increase in business customer satisfaction, massive data error reduction, and large cost savings - including an unexpected saving in the delivery of the next Census.


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the largest independent producer of official statistics in the UK.

Electronic Data Collection (EDC) is the ONS’s programme to move its paper questionnaires online via a Data Collection Portal. The aims of the programme are to reduce costs, time and errors while increasing the organisation’s focus on user needs.

The challenge

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the largest independent producer of official statistics in the UK. As well as running the census in England and Wales every ten years, it collects and publishes statistics related to the economy, population and society at national, regional and local levels.

Electronic Data Collection (EDC) is the ONS’s programme to move its paper questionnaires online via a Data Collection Portal. The aims of the programme are to reduce costs, time and errors while increasing the organisation’s focus on user needs.

Prior to the EDC programme, data was collected from businesses by sending out paper questionnaires and, for simple surveys, by telephone data entry. On these surveys, it was common for people to enter data that was internally inconsistent, for example: a date range which did not cover the requested period; sub-totals which did not match the total given in another question; and parts that did not add up to 100%. As a result, the ONS’s validation staff had to call businesses to get corrections. This costed time and money for the businesses and the ONS.

In approaching large change programmes, the ONS had been risk-averse in the past, tending to engage in big analysis up-front before embarking on implementation.

While moving the surveys online seems like a simple solution, it actually represented a major methodological shift for the ONS. Its statisticians needed to be sure that a change in the collection mechanism, from paper to electronic, would not impact month-by-month statistical continuity – a business critical matter to the ONS.

Our approach

ONS engaged IndigoBlue to support the alpha phase of the programme, commissioning us to bring our expertise to bear in supporting the evaluation of user and business needs through engagement with users, and in prototyping working software to assess the appropriate direction for the product to take during the beta phase.

The approach we recommended was to run a thin-slice alpha in parallel with the usual paper data collection. This would enable the programme to test the extent of statistical discontinuities (if any) due to the change in collection mechanism. The survey selected was the national Monthly Wages and Salaries Survey (MWSS). The published Average Weekly Earnings (AWE) was generated from the data collected on paper; the electronic version was used for comparison until the confidence of the statisticians had been secured.

This was a short-term pilot involving 6,500 businesses and using non-strategic technology. Working with the ONS team, we ran the full process end-to-end, up to (but excluding) the publication of the UK’s AWE measure. We ran the process from selecting each survey sample, sending out letters to request sign-up, chasing businesses which had not responded, calling businesses that had supplied unusual-looking figures, all the way through to generating the AWE measure.

We drove a focus on unambiguous, quantified value to facilitate decision-making and ensure that the alpha development and delivery stayed on track. For example, programme milestones were still important for motivation and tracking, but we made it clear that they were only there to deliver the specified value. If it looked like a milestone was going to be missed, our Delivery Manager would not say, “How are you going to meet the milestone?” but rather, “What are you going to do to deliver the value in the time?”

The delivery teams had both the authority and the responsibility to change their plan when circumstances dictated. They did not have the excuse of delivering to the original plan if the value was not also delivered.

Throughout this pilot, we supported the ONS in helping to break down silos. We encouraged the developers to engage with the customer support staff. As a result, they felt confident in answering business queries about the online surveys and the developers received speedy feedback on any improvements that customers were requesting to the survey system.

The outcomes

In just eight months, the programme issued its first online survey and is now collecting data from over 3,000 businesses in this way, businesses that influence the reporting of the UK’s GDP and much more. EDC provides a strong example of how starting small can allay fears and reduce risks in a highly sensitive change programme. And how, when things are done very well, small changes can turn into transformative change that will ultimately benefit the wider organisation.

As a result of this alpha, the EDC programme massively improved the speed, efficiency and cost effectiveness of the ONS’s collection of key economic data from UK businesses.

Errors in data entry were virtually eliminated, reducing by over 99%. This is because the online surveys validate the internal consistency of data on-screen as the business user enters the data. This removes the time and cost involved in calling businesses to correct their submissions.

Removing postal delivery and return saved 6-10 days from the survey process, and people reacted more quickly to an email than they usually did to a letter, saving even more time. As a result, the data for the final statistical outputs was complete much earlier.

It was the first business data collection project in which the ONS was truly able to focus on the needs of the ‘customer’. The new online business accounts provide the ONS with a clear profile of its business users, allowing them to gain a richer understanding of their needs and to engage in proper account management. For example, the ONS found one woman who had responsibility for twelve companies in her corporate group. The capacity delivered by the programme to gain new customer insights allowed the ONS to consolidate her account and treat her as one individual with multiple needs rather than speaking to her separately for each company.

The new focus on the customer and on delivery of value had a knock-on consequence of granting greater authority to the ONS’s Product Owners. With our support, they have gained confidence in prioritising user needs while making timely product decisions about the Data Collection Portal. The development of the service was led continuously by user research, and the result was very positive user feedback. 99.5% wanted henceforth to complete ONS surveys online. The positive user feedback justified the ONS’s delegation of authority to the EDC Product Owners.

One outcome that was not originally anticipated will help to save taxpayer money in producing the 2021 Census. While we were supporting the ONS in delivering the programme, it was identified that almost all the technology and functionality required for the census already existed in the business surveys in development. We even provided a mock-up of the census to the ONS’s Census team to help with its work. The 2021 Census can now be produced at negligible cost. And, unlike the previous census which was outsourced to a technology supplier, the new ONS-developed system will be back in public ownership.

Such was the programme’s success that the ONS won Treasury funding to evolve the EDC into an even more ambitious programme.

In addition, the programme was recognised in a nomination in the category of Best 'Not for Profit' Sector IT Project at the BCS UK IT Industry Awards.

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