Thematic research review:  Commissioned research for policy

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service (SRS) is a trusted research environment (TRE) that gives accredited researchers secure access to a wealth of de-identified, unpublished data to work on research projects for the public good. The SRS is accredited as a Digital Economy Act 2017 (DEA) processor by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) for the provision of data for research purposes.

As of November 2022, the SRS had over 600 live research projects that cover a wide range of topics and analytic purposes being addressed by researchers from across the sectors, using a variety of quantitative methodologies. Data available cover ONS business surveys, business registers and various administrative data. 

In this report we focus on analysis being done in the policy and evaluation space. Government departments and public bodies in the UK have a commitment to undertake and learn from evaluations of their policies, programmes or investment activity. Indeed, evaluation is recognised as a key part of good policy making, helping to provide evidence on whether an intervention, options or a change has worked, or is working, or not. 

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Evaluations are often conducted in the delivery stages of a policy, complementing the impact assessments or cost-benefit analyses that supports the decision to proceed with a policy. Published evaluations help build stakeholder and public trust in policymaking, promote efficiency in public expenditure, and demonstrate transparency. HM Treasury’s The Magenta Book (2020) provides guidance to Central Government on what consider when designing an evaluation. The overarching HM Treasury’s The Green Book (2022) offers concise guidance on how to appraise and evaluate policies, projects and programmes, using, for example, cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment.

In this report, we focus on a selection of research projects being undertaken in the SRS that have been commissioned, often for evaluation work. For this review, the focus is limited to work undertaken by third sector and private organisations. The report is supplemented with four case studies of policy design or evaluation in practice. 

We hope it will be of interest to other researchers using or planning to use SRS data for similar work, and for policymakers to appreciate the power of quantitative data to help design and review policy questions and intervention. 

ADR UK (Administrative Data Research UK), an Economic and Social Research Council investment, provides funding for the ONS SRS. The ONS is ADR UK’s major data infrastructure partner.


These four case studies evidence how commissioned work using the Secure Research Service helps support policy evaluation and policy formulation.  They shine a light on the value of the business and population data resources available.

The examples provide insight into large interventions, such as ERDF and into areas that require further support, such as in the Isle of Wight case.  The projects demonstrate commitment at both the national and local government level to improve everyday lives for citizens, through increased employment and regenerative opportunities offered by business support.

The UK Government digital transformation programme, the Integrated Data Service (IDS), due to launch as a live service in 2024, builds on the recognised success of the SRS. The programme aims to create a step change in the way data about our society and economy are made available for vital research and decision making in the UK.  Streamlined access to a number of powerful deidentified integrated data assets from government departments and devolved administrations will offer untapped insight and enabling rapid analysis, including future policy formulation and evaluation.


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