What economists do: Talking to Philip Wales, UK Office for National Statistics

Wondering what economists get up to in the real world? The BGSE Voice team spoke to Philip Wales, Head of Productivity at the UK Office for National Statistics about what economists like him get up to, and what makes a good professional economist.

First of all, could you please tell us about yourself: what is your background, and what do you do at the ONS?

My name is Philip Wales; I’m Head of Productivity at the Office for National Statistics. I’ve been working at ONS for just over five years, and have held a range of different posts over that period. Before I started work here, I was studying for my PhD at the London School of Economics, and prior to that I was a graduate economist at a private sector consultancy.

In my current position, I manage a team of 14 economists with responsibility for the production and analysis of the UK’s core productivity statistics. We produce the UK’s main measures of labour productivity as well as estimates of multi-factor productivity. It’s an interesting area which has got a lot of attention since the onset of the economic downturn and the ‘Productivity Puzzle’. We regularly answer queries from the press, academics and a range of other experts; we often contribute to external seminars and talks at big international conferences, and our statistics help to inform the national policy debate.

The part of my job that I enjoy most is working with the detailed survey data that ONS receives to understand developments in the UK economy. Over the last few years, I’ve analysed the UK’s Labour Force Survey, the Annual Business Survey and the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings. I’ve worked with micro-level information gathered for the Consumer Prices Index and with survey data on household income and expenditure, and we’ve produced a range of outputs using these resources.

What other things do economists do at the ONS? 

There are more than 100 economists at ONS, engaged in a wide variety of activities. In our central team, our economists scrutinise and sense-check our economic data. They are responsible for building a coherent narrative around ONS’ economic statistics, and help the media, outside experts and other interested users to understand recent developments. ONS economists also conduct in-depth research and analysis on our micro-level datasets to support user understanding. At times when an economic aggregate is behaving unusually, or when there is a demand for more detailed information, a clear understanding of recent developments informed by high-level data handling and analytical skills is critical.

Alongside work on these data-driven questions, our economists are also deployed to work on detailed methodological and measurement questions. How do you go about modelling the depreciation of a firm’s capital stock? What is the difference between a democratically- and a plutocratically-weighted price index? How have changes in workforce composition affected average wage growth? In all of these cases, economists work alongside methodologists and statisticians to draw grounded, intellectually-robust conclusions about our approach

Finally, ONS economists are also involved in supporting the corporate functions at ONS. We work on business cases – seeking to value the costs and benefits of big projects – as well as modelling the implications of changes in pay rates for the department’s budget. In all of these roles, the skill set that economists bring to the role is highly valued, and our numbers have grown as a result

What are the main challenges you face as an economist at the ONS?

One of the biggest challenges that economists face – both at ONS and elsewhere – is communicating our findings in a clear, concise and accessible form. Even when speaking to other, technically minded colleagues, communicating the findings of a piece of analysis clearly can be a real challenge – especially if it is at the more complicated end of the spectrum. Communicating our findings to a non-technical user-base or – occasionally – members of the media, can be even more difficult.

In my experience, good preparation is central to achieving a good result. I try to pitch my work in a clear, intuitive manner, using thought-through and interesting graphics to help users to understand the questions that I’m posing and the answers that my analysis provides. Above all, I try to weave a narrative through my work – helping the audience to understand what the broader picture is, as well as our detailed findings. Clear communication is especially important when you work for an institution like ONS – where users are looking for clear messages on recent developments. Expert knowledge is certainly very important and the world is a complicated place – but communicating difficult concepts in a clear and intuitive manner is a key skill for economists in all walks of life.

In your opinion, what makes a good professional/public sector economist? What does the ONS look for in economists?

Besides the good communication skills, a good economist needs solid data-skills, an enquiring and inquisitive mind and the capability to bring together and synthesise information from a range of different sources within a coherent framework.

The best economists that I’ve worked with at ONS have all of these attributes. Confronted with a dataset, they’re interested in exploring it and visualising it in different ways. They ask questions about what the data can tell us about the way that different agents are working in the economy, and whether that accords with our intuition or conceptual approach. They explore how the dataset was constructed, what limitations this imposes and think about how applicable the survey results are for the population as a whole. They deploy their skills of data-analysis and their economic theory to explain what is going on, and they build intuitive examples and graphics into their work to communicate their meaning to others. They have a real desire to learn about the economy through the data that we collect and they have a clear interest in helping others to understand what is going on.

These economists tend to be enthusiastic, inquiring and curious in their job, with a rapacious appetite for detail and knowledge. They have one eye on the datasets, another eye on their methodology and theory, and a clear line of sight to an issue central to economic policy. It’s this blend of economic skills that make a good economist, and that’s what I’m looking for when I interview prospective ONS economists.

Do you have any advice for the current generation of economics students?

I’m wary of giving advice – as one size rarely fits all – but I think there’s a lot of interesting developments taking place in economics that students should look to exploit. Firstly, the economic downturn and the financial crisis created an appetite to revisit what had become established theoretical tenets of the field and the nature of our modelling. A sceptical, but fair-minded assessment of the models and approaches that you learn is really important.

Secondly, as the field has progressed, the gulf between theoreticians and empiricists has grown very large, with relatively few economists now able to bridge the gap between the frontier of theory and the frontier of measurement. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of both is central – and will be more so in the future. As more data becomes available, having both a decent theoretical foundation and a strong set of applied empirical skills will be critical.

Finally, if I had my time again, I’d want to make the very most of the opportunity that studying offers. Go to the talk that you’re interested in; speak to the lecturer afterwards; think critically about how you would extend someone else’s analysis and try and come up with ideas of your own. It’s a great time, enjoy it!