This article was first published in the October 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Michael Scholar, the former chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, argued that reliable official statistics are as important as clean water – without it, society starts to fall apart. So, at a time when the internet is awash with dubious ‘facts’, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is a welcome port in the storm – a source of comprehensive and reliable information.   

Our GDP and national income figures, population and migration statistics, consumer prices index and job market statistics all come from the ONS. It can tell us that people in Northern Ireland are happier than the rest of the UK, and that Amelia and Oliver are the most popular first names for babies born in the UK, although Jaxon (for a boy) and Aria (for a girl) showed the fastest rise in popularity in 2015. It is also responsible for the census in England and Wales.

The aim of the ONS is ‘to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good’. To do that, it is essential that the public trusts the ONS and the figures it publishes. As part of the non-ministerial department called the UK Statistics Authority, staffed by the civil service, the ONS has been independent of government since the Statistics and Registration Service Act of 2007.

In 2014 the UK Statistics Authority, the ONS and the Government Statistical Service jointly published a five-year strategic plan called Better Statistics, Better Decisions. Good-quality, reliable statistics, it stressed, were for the benefit of the country as a whole, providing valuable data and evidence for analysts, researchers, public and voluntary bodies to use, and allowing the public to hold to account all organisations that spend public money.

The strategy sets out the plan to bring statistical services in the UK into the digital age. As the latest ONS annual report explains, this means that, by 2020, more data will be in real-time, services will be digital by default, and ‘the quality of our advice and insight will ensure our statistics are more relevant than ever and earn us a seat at the table when important decisions are made’. 

For Paul Layland FCCA, director of finance at the ONS, this was a critical message. ‘I felt that finance should have exactly the same approach,’ he says.

Facts in the cloud

As a result, the ONS finance function is transforming the way financial information is gathered, analysed and used. At the end of October, the organisation goes live with the first cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) system in a UK government department. There will be no dry run with the old and new systems running in parallel – just D-Day, when the system goes live and, with luck, everyone breathes again.

For a man with such a deadline, Layland is remarkably calm. His time with the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) prepared him for what was ahead. When he joined VOSA in 2002 it was nearing the end of a 10-year, £240m project to computerise MOT testing. The plan was to go live with the system in 2002, but it eventually launched in 2005.

 VOSA’s MOT computerisation was rocky but ultimately successful, and this no doubt sowed the seeds for Layland’s time at the ONS. When he joined in 2011 as deputy director of finance, the finance function was in a poor state; an external assessment found that control and governance needed attention and the function placed in the bottom quartile in terms of financial maturity. ‘The service provision to the organisation simply wasn’t there,’ says Layland. 

Only months after he joined, the director of finance left and, newly appointed as acting CFO, Layland set out his plans to the board: ‘I said we needed to plug the holes in the system before we attempted anything innovative.’ The finance team’s skills were strengthened, and governance and control systems improved. A three-year plan, which was completed in 2015, saw a major restructuring of the finance team. ‘I wanted the organisation to own and be responsible for financial management,’ he says. ‘The plan was to move away from the financial management/management accounting split and adopt a business partnering approach.’  

System overhaul

The next step was to address the department’s outdated systems. Its Oracle ERP system was struggling to keep up with the increasing demands placed on it. ‘We wanted to integrate workforce planning into the system and it just wasn’t capable of handling it,’ says Layland. Overall, the system was unloved and outdated. ‘We evaluated all our options and took the decision to move to a cloud-based ERP system, Oracle Cloud, with the help of a cloud specialist, Certus Solutions, in January this year.’ 

This would be the first time a complete Oracle Fusion suite was implemented in
a UK government department; no pressure for the CFO, then. He says ‘it wasn’t difficult’ to persuade the board to make the investment: ‘The benefits of the system are significant, both for the ONS financially and our plans to support other departments.’

The initial target date for implementation of the cloud system was an optimistic September 2016. That has since been pushed back, but only by a couple of weeks. ‘I’m confident we’ll go live in October,’ he says. ‘We’ve allowed users access to test the new system already – it’s very helpful for the people who will be using it to get early sight of it – and the feedback has been very positive.’

As well as overseeing the transformation, Layland has spent the summer visiting various government departments, explaining the new cloud system and the benefits it can bring. ‘It was a risky decision for us to be the first government department to implement a cloud-based system,’ he says. ‘But there’s huge potential for us to help them wherever they decide to go.’

Making financial data more accessible has been a priority for Layland. New data analytics software (Tableau) is also being introduced and there is, he says, a lot of excitement about it. He feels this goes to the heart of what the ONS is all about – data will be accurate and timely, but most of all presented in a way that everyone can understand. ‘It’s very fast and it allows non-financial people to understand our data. The board has given us very positive feedback – they are able to understand the direction of finance and how it aligns against our strategic objectives. You can take action, make better decisions.’ 

His ultimate ambition is for finance to act as a true business partner at the ONS. The skills of the finance team are already being enhanced with this in mind, through a newly launched finance learning academy, which emphasises soft skills as well as financial acumen. ‘Soft skills are critical if you are going to have a business partnering role. We have to be out there and engaging with people across the organisation to understand what they need from finance. What we are talking about is true stakeholder management.’

Liz Fisher, journalist