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Trustworthy official statistics help us all overcome crises, now and in the future

Data can be a matter of life and death. We have seen in recent years how statistical information about the structure of the communities affected by earthquakes or typhoons—how many people, in which age groups, and in which locations—is essential for making quick and informed decisions to mobilize appropriate emergency responses.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for data has entered a new era. The pace of change in the demand for rapid, easily understandable statistics has been profound as the world strives to understand the health, social and economic impacts of the crisis.

But beyond COVID-19, statistical evidence underpins all good policymaking – to improve livelihoods, measure and adapt to the impacts of climate change, and to understand complex inequalities.

In a world where huge amounts of data are being generated all the time, and where we take for granted almost instantaneous access to them, official statistics stand out as a unique source of impartial and trustworthy information. On today’s World Statistics Day, we must renew our commitment to the work of official statistics producers. We need them more than ever.

Grounded in the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, the information they produce is our beacon to navigate out of the current crisis.

The Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, adopted in 1991 by countries working together through the UNECE Conference of European Statisticians, were endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2014. They now serve as the core guiding principles for all producers of Official Statistics, whether national or international, worldwide. They are like the Ten Commandments for statisticians, providing a blueprint for what they must do, how they must gather data, produce and disseminate their statistics, and how they must act to safeguard their correct use and interpretation.

The Principles call for political independence, for the freedom to act without interference from governments who may not wish uncomfortable truths about the states of their economies or public health records to fall under the scrutiny of the public or of their political opponents. Such political independence is absolutely at the core of successful official statistics, ensuring the trust of the public both as suppliers and as users of data. Who, after all, will offer up personal information in a survey if they think it could be misused? The crucial importance of trust and belief that neither data collection efforts nor published statistics are influenced by political imperatives is clear: evidenced, for example, in the way that official reports of COVID-19 cases and deaths coming out of some countries have been viewed with caution or even suspicion, while those from other countries are widely accepted as good estimates.

The power to act without political interference is not the same thing as acting in isolation from government. Countries which have made effective use of the mass of data and statistical expertise offered by their national statistical agencies to deal with the COVID-19 crisis are those in which the National Statistical Office has worked in close coordination with policymakers, health ministries and other parts of government from the outset. Responding to massive demand, many UNECE countries — Canada, Ireland, Poland and the United Kingdom, among others — have established COVID dashboards, with headline figures and deeper analyses, which can be called upon almost daily in government COVID briefings and press conferences. What better way for official statistics producers to ensure governments use statistics correctly than to be by their side?

The Fundamental Principles also demand methodological rigour and accuracy. This assurance of the use of the best available scientific methods and highest-quality data sources is often touted as the 'unique selling point' of official statistics, the feature that sets them apart from the flood of other kinds of figures that people could use to guide their decisions. Users – from policymakers to researchers, journalists and the general public— are rightly calling for figures to be made available much more rapidly than before to help them understand and respond to the pandemic. Quarterly economic figures are simply not sufficient in a world where the entire economy can be opened or closed from one week to the next. Last month's mortality figures are hardly helpful in deciding whether or not to lock down a nation tomorrow. And the concentration of vulnerable older people in particular neighbourhoods at the time of the last census—sometimes conducted a full decade ago—is of little use in targeting mobile COVID-19 testing centres right now. The assurance of high quality is indeed what sets official statistics apart from other, sometimes dubious, sources, but quality has many dimensions, of which accuracy is only one. Timeliness is also an aspect of statistical quality.

Indeed, the first of the Fundamental Principles calls for official statistics to be relevant, impartial and equally accessible to all. This means they must fulfil users' needs, and adapt when those needs change. UNECE has been at the forefront in guiding countries towards improved dissemination and communication of statistics, putting two-way communication with users in the spotlight. This communication enables National statistical offices to find out what is truly needed and respond with new products or analyses, such as flash estimates of unemployment and consumer confidence in Israel or the UK’s weekly releases of statistics on Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain.

Knowing that the national and international official statistical community adheres to these principles gives decision-makers the assurance that the figures they use can be trusted. This should give them the confidence to use official statistics to inform, evaluate and correct policies.

The unique level of confidence we place in official statistics must be reinforced with all the power the international community can muster, to ensure that quantitative evidence remains central to protecting people’s lives. This is crucial right now to guide immediate responses to the public health crisis. It will be vital to inform how we rebuild in the new social and economic realities left in its wake and get on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.