New president takes over
John Pullinger became the 108th president of the Society on 1 January, succeeding Valerie Isham. We look back here to the work he has already done for the Society and to his career as a government statistician and at the House of Commons.
John has been active in the Society for many years. He has chaired the National Statistics working party and been a member of the long term strategy group, executive committee, statistics users executive, membership group and recordings group. He has been on Council since 2008 and a speaker at and chair of many RSS meetings and conferences.
Most notably, John has chaired the getstats campaign since its launch in 2010. In this role he has been guided by a strong belief that if people are better informed they make better choices in their lives. In a world where numbers are everywhere around us, better statistical understanding will improve decision making in politics, enhance the quality of journalism, be beneficial to business competitiveness and be a vital feature of education for every child at school. A deeper appreciation of the importance of the discipline of statistics and the profession of statistician will also benefit many fields of scientific and academic endeavour across the physical, natural and social sciences. His passion for the subject, drawing on the ideas of the founders of the RSS, comes from how statistics makes an impact on society.
Born in south London, John won a free place at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich before becoming the first person in his family to progress to university. His degree in geography and statistics from Exeter University gained him entry to the statistics stream of the civil service in 1980. His first postings were to the Department of Trade and Industry where he worked on design and delivery of surveys into investment in manufacturing industries, compilation of industrial cost and price indices and estimation of monthly retail sales.
On promotion to the civil service principal grade at the Department of the Environment he took responsibility for statistics on local government revenues before becoming a policy advisor on urban development corporations and later on local government finance reform, including the legislation on the Council Tax. A further promotion took him to the Office of Manpower Economics where he headed the pay research team conducting comparative research to inform pay levels in the civil service, armed forces and teaching profession.
In 1992 John entered the senior civil service as director of policy and planning at the Central Statistical Office. In this role he was project manager for the creation of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) from the merger of the Central Statistical Office, Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and statistical units of the former employment department, was policy lead on development of the Government Statistical Service (GSS) and was responsible for international relations. In this latter role John represented the UK at the United Nations Statistical Commission as well as at the European Union, OECD, Commonwealth and many other international forums where statistical issues were discussed.
Taking the role of director of the Social and Regional Division, John became editor of the flagship Social Trends publication and a host of other publications seeking to communicate complex statistical information to wide audiences. Following the 1997 general election he also built up a social analysis function to support new government policy units working on social exclusion, equality, drugs and many other issues.
By 1999 he had been promoted twice more and was an established member of the ONS board, responsible for the management of a large proportion of the staff of the Office including those working on labour market, demographic, health, social and regional statistics and analysis, the census, social surveys and use of administrative records. As an established head of profession for statistics, he chaired many of the GSS committees and played an active role in the government’s accountability and incentives project, chairing expert panels assessing the validity of performance measures being proposed by government departments. He went on to lead the neighbourhood statistics programme and was actively involved in the developments in statistical governance which resulted in the creation of National Statistics and the Statistics Commission in 2000.
In his later years at ONS, when his remit also included economic analysis, John chaired the ONS productivity programme board and the pensions contributions statistics review committee and was a ‘Friend of the chair’ advisor to the director of Eurostat on the statistics needed for the Economic and Monetary Union. He was also Caldicott Guardian and chair of the ONS advisory group on medical research. During this period John increasingly had government-wide responsibilities including being chair of the Cabinet Office e-government central infrastructure board and member of the e-government programme board.
Having become the longest serving member of the ONS board, and after graduating from Harvard Business School’s flagship advanced management programme, John decided to seek pastures new. He applied for the job of librarian of the House of Commons and became, in 2004, the 14th holder of that post, the first to be recruited from outside the House.
Inside Parliament, John is known for his commitment to marketing library, research and information services with the aim of delivering services that are beneficial to the greatest number of MPs and their staff. By 2012 numbers of research enquiries were some 60 per cent higher than in the same period in the previous parliament and the vast majority of MPs are regular customers. John’s commitment to supporting politicians in their work has been recognised by his role as chair of an inter-parliamentary union conference on informing democracy and his election as chair of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions Section for Library and Research Services for Parliaments.
As a member of the House of Commons management board, John has worked closely with the Speaker and several committees in both Houses to develop the connection between Parliament and the public. His management responsibilities encompass the education service, visitor service, website and intranet, outreach and information office and media office. The aspiration for this work has shifted from providing services to the tens of thousands who are already minded to contact Parliament to engaging with the tens of millions who are not. Several of these teams have won UK and international awards and their achievements are highlighted and celebrated in the 2012 Global Parliamentary Report.
John’s managerial responsibilities also include the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the Curator’s Office which looks after Parliament’s collection of 8000 works of art and sculpture.
Throughout his time at Parliament, John has maintained his active involvement with statistics. As well as his contribution to the RSS he was a long standing advisory board chair of the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research at Manchester University, advisory board chair of the ESRC Understanding Population Trends and Analysis programme led by Leeds University and advisory board chair of the Economic and Social Data Service. He also chaired the UK Data Forum between 2007 and 2011. He is a member of the International Statistical Institute.
Married with three adult children, John is active in his local community in Tunbridge Wells and has been chairman of Great Culverden Park Ltd since 1999.
Past president Valerie Isham writes as follows:
On being elected president of the RSS, one’s first reaction is consciousness of the great honour received. The next thought is awareness of the huge challenges presented, given the enormously broad range of activities in which the RSS is involved these days – and perhaps some incredulity that one’s peers think one can rise to these. But the lasting impression is of all the exciting possibilities for learning and doing new things that it presents. John Pullinger has a wealth of relevant experience and the Society could not be in better hands – I am sure he will enjoy the 108th presidency and I wish him the very best for his term of office.