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What are statistics worth? Determining the value of Official Statistics

Published: 07 March 2019

‘Evidence-based decision-making’. It’s a term that rolls off the tongue almost without having to think about it, so commonplace has it become in the everyday jargon of policy-making and sustainable development circles.

But it’s something that does bear thinking about. What is a decision taken without a basis in evidence? When received wisdom, opinions, beliefs or even outright falsehoods drive decision-making, the results can be disastrous for development, justice and democracy. Evidence is essential.

The UNECE Recommendations for Promoting, Measuring and Communicating the Value of Official Statistics, published today, serve as a practical tool to guide Official Statistics producers as they strive to make this crucial role of evidence—that is, of data and statistics—known and understood.  In a world where huge amounts of data are being generated all the time, and where people can look up almost anything they want, whenever they want, Official Statistics stand out as a unique source of impartial and trustworthy information.

The Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics —based on professional independence, scientific methods and rigorous quality criteria—give Official Statistics their powerful competitive advantage. The challenge, which the new Recommendations help to meet, is to ensure that this unique value is clearly demonstrated. The goal is that people will seek out and refer to Official Statistics rather than low quality, questionable data, or, worse, disinformation and propaganda.

The Recommendations, developed by an international task force of experts from national and international statistical offices, provide an analysis of the value of Official Statistics for a range of different stakeholders; a set of generic materials for re-use by statistical offices to conduct user satisfaction surveys; and an overview of current and suggested measurement approaches.

The measurement framework, including methods for monetizing the value of statistical products, is currently being pilot tested by seven UNECE countries to provide further methodological guidance. Armenia, Mexico, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the United Kingdom, will each test a part of the framework, such as how to assess the ways that statistics are used; how to determine whether people trust or believe in statistics; and, most challenging of all, how to calculate their monetary value.

The few attempts at this so far have demonstrated that Official Statistics bring net benefits—for example, calculations found that the 2013 Census in New Zealand cost 198 million New Zealand dollars, but crucially, every dollar invested led to a return of about 5 dollars for the country and its economy.

The New Zealand study considered 11 major areas of impact, such as healthcare funding, infrastructure planning, education, and supporting vulnerable communities. Census data permit more accurate estimates for government funding and policy-making decisions, public and private investments and business decision-making, compared with other potential data sources. The resulting estimate of the economic value of the census is conservative, since there are many indirect benefits that are difficult or impossible to measure: the value of census data for economists, demographers and climate scientists making forecasts, for example, or the value to citizens whose democratic rights are supported when census data are used to determine electoral boundaries.

As John Pullinger, the National Statistician of the United Kingdom which chaired the Task Force, writes in the preface to the Recommendations,

“Good use of evidence can help us develop an economy that will thrive and deliver jobs and prosperity.

Good use of evidence can help us fight for justice and enable the powerless to hold the powerful to account.

Good use of evidence can help us create an environment we want to live in and a sustainable future for our children”

The Recommendations are available online at http://www.unece.org/index.php?id=51139

A wiki platform for exchange of good practices, developed by the Task Force to help statistical offices apply the Recommendations, is available at statswiki.unece.org/x/FQRXBw.

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