Earlier this month a report in the Sunday Express (published online late on 7th May) about the forecast for the Royal Wedding made a couple of interesting observations that prompted a blog post here on AM.
Firstly there was confirmation that the Met Office will pay performance-related bonuses this year which will push the total paid to its 1,800 staff in the last six years to almost £15million. Apparently these bonuses are based on profitability and when the Met Office meets its targets on forecasting accuracy.
Secondly there was a reminder that the majority of the Met Office’s £190million annual income comes from public funds by means of contracts to provide services to government departments and that critics say it is time to force it to compete in the open market against other forecasters.
It was these factoids that made me curious about the reality of the Met Office’s forecasting performance. Do its executives really deserve the bonuses they are going to receive?
While the Met Office might like to aggressively counter stories like that in the Sunday Express, as it did on 9th May by claiming its forecast the day before the Royal Wedding was more accurate than the newspaper claimed, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Or in weather forecasting terms, seeing how many private customers are sufficiently satisfied with Met Office forecasts to continue buying services from them commercially. So this blog submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Met Office asking them:
Please will you supply me with full details of:
1. The number of non-Governmental (private) customers purchasing
forecasting services from the Met Office in the years 2008, 2009
and 2010 respectively
2. The total revenue received from non-Governmental (private)
contracts for forecasting services provided by the Met Office in
the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively
Please note I am not requesting details of the individual customers
or specifics of their contract terms.
It was a clear enough request. However, the Met Office’s reply seemed to be trying to conceal something:
The number of commercial customers purchasing services from the Met Office over the three year period would show us whether the customer base is stable, rising or falling. The number of commercial customers is a fair reflection of customer confidence in Met Office forecasts. But the Met Office clearly did not want to deal in specifics.
So a follow up was sent asking that they provide me with the exact number of commercial customers in each of the three years specified as per my request. Their reply arrived today:
While revenues (for the years where figures are available) have remained fairly constant, we can now see that since 2008-9 the Met Office commercial customer base has shrunk by 17.3%.
We can now see why the figures were not provided in response to the original request. And this is happening against a backdrop of independent forecasters adding customers to their books.
Customers generally don’t leave specialist service providers that deliver good performance, so it is reasonable to assume that faith in Met Office forecasting is declining due to accuracy failings. If performance is on the wane the question that must be answered is how can the Met Office’s executives continue to award themselves bonuses year on year?
Without the cushions and comfort blankets provided by guaranteed government contracts funded with our tax pounds one wonders how the Met Office would fare operating exclusively in the private sector.