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Defending the Value of Official Statistics

To say that we live in an information age is starting to seem like an understatement. Data are available in unimaginable quantities and humankind is continuously producing more. Around 90% of existing data have been created in the past few years and according to estimates, the amount of data is doubling every two years. At the same time, the rise of so-called “post truth” politics, where feeling weighs more than fact, may be a symptom of people becoming tired of continuously being bombarded with information.

To deal with the increasing amounts of data, people need to be more aware about the quality and reliability of data. Quality should become the decisive factor when choosing a data source. That’s where official statistics can stand out of the piles and piles of other data. National Statistical Organisations (NSOs) produce official statistics and strive for accuracy, reliability and uncompromised objectivity using the best methods, as enshrined in the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics. Unbiased information can have a surprisingly high value for decision making – in particular in monitoring progress in sensitive issues such as inequality, poverty and climate change.

However, times are not easy for NSOs. They are facing increasing competition from a growing number and variety of data producers and they are hit by budget cuts as governments tighten their belts. In addition, technological development offers new possibilities at a pace that might make it hard for NSOs to keep up without significant investment in software, knowledge and capacity. Despite these challenges, NSOs are reporting high and even rising levels of user confidence.

In light of these developments, in March 2015 the Conference of European Statisticians established a UNECE Task Force on the Value of Official Statistics to define what users, stakeholders and society value in official statistics, and to develop ways to measure this value and communicate it more effectively to society. By February 2016, the Task Force had come up with eight recommendations for NSOs on how to further increase the value of statistics.

 

Improving user engagement and user focus form the core of the recommendations. Official statistics have a comparative advantage over other data producers in that they adhere to the Fundamental Principles, but an even more user-centred approach is crucial to remaining relevant. This will require NSOs to get to know their users and their preferences and to start developing new information products that integrate statistics into people’s everyday life. This will require allocating resources to design and innovation.

Going it alone will not be an option for NSOs anymore. UNECE provides a platform for the statistical community to work together, but it is also important to look for new partnerships. Partnerships with the private sector, academia and those at the center of decision-making will allow NSOs to leverage expertise, alleviate resource constraints and truly understand the needs of users.

Official statistics is a unique brand. It needs to be communicated better. Excessive modesty regarding the value and benefits of using official statistics will not help. The good news is that with a strong product that matches user needs – with a focus on innovation, design and partnerships - branding becomes easier.

Statisticians are redefining the role they play in society and considering how they can best help people to navigate through the jungle of information. Once they have it all figured out, it’s just about getting the word out.

The results of the Task Force’s work and the value of official statistics were discussed at a dedicated session at the Workshops on Statistical Data Collection and Statistical Data Dissemination and Communication on 5 October. For more information, please visit: http://www1.unece.org/stat/platform/x/awkpBw