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Monthly means of the magnetic field measurements at ground observatories are a key data source for studying temporal changes of the core magnetic field. However, when they are calculated in the usual way, contributions of external (magnetospheric and ionospheric) origin may remain, which make them less favourable for studying the field generated by dynamo action in the core. We remove external field predictions, including a new way of characterizing the magnetospheric ring current, from the data and then calculate revised monthly means using robust methods. The geomagnetic secular variation (SV) is calculated as the first annual differences of these monthly means, which also removes the static crustal field. SV time-series based on revised monthly means are much less scattered than those calculated from ordinary monthly means, and their variances and correlations between components are smaller. On the annual to decadal timescale, the SV is generated primarily by advection in the fluid outer core. We demonstrate the utility of the revised monthly means by calculating models of the core surface advective flow between 1997 and 2013 directly from the SV data. One set of models assumes flow that is constant over three months; such models exhibit large and rapid temporal variations. For models of this type, less complex flows achieve the same fit to the SV derived from revised monthly means than those from ordinary monthly means. However, those obtained from ordinary monthly means are able to follow excursions in SV that are likely to be external field contamination rather than core signals. Having established that we can find models that fit the data adequately, we then assess how much temporal variability is required. Previous studies have suggested that the flow is consistent with torsional oscillations (TO), solid body-like oscillations of fluid on concentric cylinders with axes aligned along the Earth's rotation axis. TO have been proposed to explain decadal timescale changes in the length-of-day. We invert for flow models where the only temporal changes are consistent with TO, but such models have an unacceptably large data misfit. However, if we relax the TO constraint to allow a little more temporal variability, we can fit the data as well as with flows assumed constant over three months, demonstrating that rapid SV changes can be reproduced by rather small flow changes. Although the flow itself changes slowly, its time derivative can be locally (temporally and spatially) large, in particular when and where core surface secular acceleration peaks. Spherical harmonic expansion coefficients of the flows are not well resolved, and many of them are strongly correlated. Averaging functions, a measure of our ability to determine the flow at a given location from the data distribution available, are poor approximations to the ideal, even when centred on points of the core surface below areas of high observatory density. Both resolution and averaging functions are noticeably worse for the toroidal flow component, which dominates the flow, than the poloidal flow component, except around the magnetic equator where averaging functions for both components are poor.