Supporting Comparative Regional Analysis Across the UK: Evaluating the Availability, Comparability and Dissemination of Northern Ireland’s Socioeconomic Data

The need for high quality regional and national economic indicators has repeatedly received attention in independent reviews of UK economic statistics. Such indicators play a key role in supporting policymaking at the UK level as well as across the devolved nations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Further devolution, the UK’s departure from the European Union, and the UK government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda have again renewed interest in subnational data with a particular emphasis on subnational data gaps and the coherence and comparability of data across the UK.

In this project, we focus on Northern Ireland. The report’s overarching aim is to evaluate gaps in Northern Ireland’s economic data provision with the goal of supporting greater comparability and alignment with data available for the rest of the UK. The report therefore has three contributions. First, we consider key categories of indicator (for example, headline economic indicators, business and labour market indicators, health indicators etc.) and assess the extent to which Northern Ireland has data gaps relative to the rest of the UK.

We evaluate just over 150 economic and socioeconomic Northern Ireland indicators, 138 of which are publicly available. This is not an exhaustive list of available socioeconomic statistics but by considering a large sample of indicators from multiple categories, we can draw useful conclusions about the state of data availability. To assess whether there are gaps, we consider whether Northern Ireland has indicators which are, at a minimum, conceptually comparable (i.e., based on different data sources but measuring the same concept) with indicators available for the rest of the UK. We also consider whether Northern Ireland indicators are produced with the same level of geographic granularity and publication frequency as in other parts of the UK. Importantly, the majority of the Northern Ireland indicators we evaluate are classified as Official Statistics or Accredited Official Statistics (formerly National Statistics). While these classifications do not necessarily indicate that comparability is possible, it indicates a level of quality in the production of statistics.

This leads to our second contribution. The GSS have a dedicated Statistical Coherence Programme co-ordinated by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to improve the comparability and coherence of UK data. Consequently, this report does not seek to evaluate the coherence and comparability of Northern Ireland indicators with the rest of the UK on an indicator-by-indicator basis. Rather, our report discusses some of the potential risks which can arise from focusing on data which is fully or directly comparable but not drawing users’ attention to indicators which are, for example, meaningfully or conceptually comparable.

To aid our discussion, we present a comparability spectrum with six tiers, which builds on internal guidance issued by the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities to analysts across UK Government Departments. Our six tiers include: full comparability; direct comparability; meaningful comparability; conceptual comparability and coherence; conceptual comparability but not yet coherence; and data which is not comparable. The latter implies that at least one nation may have a data gap. We will also discuss the difference between comparability and coherence in a subnational context and other important considerations when making cross-UK data comparisons. These nuances and the spectrum of comparability can be difficult for data producers to articulate users which has important implications, particularly when disseminating data.

A third contribution of this report is that it provides the opportunity to take stock as the GSS makes progress implementing the initiatives described in the subnational data strategy. Specifically, the report discusses issues relating to several of the strategy’s key themes including collaboration between different UK data producers and users, coherence and comparability, and data access and dissemination.

Having drawn out a number of key findings and prioritised areas of action, the report then provides a roadmap for future development via 12 recommendations on: data comparability and coherence; data access, sharing, and dissemination; model-based estimation and administrative data; and developing Northern Ireland indicators to further support policymaking. Importantly, while we focus on Northern Ireland, several themes and recommendations raised are likely to be applicable to the devolved nations of Scotland and Wales.

Preview of Key Insights

To preview some of our core findings, we do not find evidence to suggest that there are substantive data gaps in Northern Ireland. Instead, we continue to emphasise that comparability is not a binary quality. While data for Northern Ireland may not always be fully or directly comparable with other parts of the UK, for example due to definitional or methodological differences, indicators which are meaningfully comparable or capture the same concept are typically available. Crucially, omission of meaningfully or conceptually comparable indicators from UK publications (such as the Levelling Up White Paper and Technical Annex) or dissemination tools (such as the Subnational Indicators Explorer) may lead to the incorrect inference that there are large data gaps in Northern Ireland.

In light of the above, in this report, we not only analyse the comparability of Northern Ireland’s data, but also consider how such data is presented and disseminated by statistical bodies and services in Northern Ireland as well as in the UK. With DLUHC repeatedly highlighting the importance of collaboration between UK government departments and the devolved administrations, we emphasise that it is important that publications and dissemination tools have the flexibility required to reflect the nuanced UK data landscape, whereby different nations produce similar but not identical indicators.

We also emphasise that different producers and users of subnational data have different needs. While ONS led initiatives such as the Coherence Work Programme, ONS Local and overarching subnational statistics workplan can improve the UK-wide comparability and coherence of subnational data, UK government priorities and the current emphasis on full or direct comparability may not always align with the priorities of the devolved administrations or other local users. Consequently, where the priorities of the devolved administrations differ from UK government departments, needs may go unmet for the devolved administrations if they lack resource. Notably, though this can also adversely affect the UK government, particularly in areas where UK-wide policy seeks to improve outcomes across the UK. If comparable data is not available, the UK government is left unable to effectively assess the needs of devolved administrations or evaluate the effects of policy. It is therefore important that policymakers across the UK address issues regarding different funding streams, budget pressures and organisational priorities which have the potential to create further gaps in the availability, comparability and policy relevance of subnational data, particularly at the devolved or local level.

Other themes considered in our recommendations are the importance of data capturing the economic relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and the potential for model-based estimation and administrative data. In terms of the former, Northern Ireland already has a strong base, regularly producing high quality trade statistics which feed into ONS estimates of subnational trade in goods and services. Last, while the focus of our report is on how Northern Ireland’s data provision fits into the UK landscape, we also consider the importance of Northern Ireland indicators with a unique subnational purpose, which can clearly map to Northern Ireland’s policy objectives.


Allison is a Fellow at the Fraser of Allander Institute. She specialises in health, socioeconomic inequality and labour market dynamics.

Sharada Nia Davidson

Sharada supports the Institute’s projects which develop new economic indicators and statistics or require time series data analysis. She has undertaken work for the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence.  Previously, Sharada worked as a Consultant and PhD Trainee for the European Central Bank, modelling the impact of macroprudential policies.

Kevin is a Chancellor's Fellow in the Department of Economic with a focus on the use of regional economic models for policy analysis. Areas of interest include; energy and climate change, poverty and tourism.

Ciara is an Associate Economist at the Fraser of Allander Institute. She has a broad research experience across different areas including poverty and inequality, the voluntary sector, health, education, trade, and renewables and climate change. Ciara has an MSc in Applied Economics (Distinction) and a first-class BA Honour’s degree in Economics and Finance, both from the University of Strathclyde.