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Do we have the statistics we need?

| By acting editor Björn Lindahl

”What we measure affects what we do. If we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing. If we don't measure something, it becomes neglected, as if the problem didn't exist.”

The quote is from the fresh OECD report “Beyond GDP” which looks at how statistics presents reality. Would politicians have acted differently during the latest big economic crisis if they had not only focussed on growth but also on how it is being shared?

Statistics is the foundation for both the political debate and for the social partners when they negotiate new collective agreements in the Nordics. 

If politicians and other stakeholders lose their faith in statistics on growth, price development and wages, it will become harder to govern society. A lot of time would be spent on arguing over facts rather than discussing realities. 

This month’s theme is the Nordic statistics agencies. Are they, like Statistics Norway writes in its annual report, the frontline in the defence against fake news?

“Some people still doubt the Earth is round,” sighs the Director General of Statistics Finland, Marjo Bruunat the same she is proud of a new cooperation where Finnish statisticians will help fact-check politicians’ pronouncements ahead of the next election.

In Europe there is close cooperation between the central statistics agencies. Together they represent and army of 50,000 statisticians. Like doctors, statisticians follow very solid ethics.

The European guidelines for statistics say the national agencies should be independent from both political and business influence. Statistics should not only be correct. It should be announced in advance of publication, so that those who govern cannot suppress or delays certain statics.  

The independence of Statistics Norway became the centre of attention during a spat between the Minister of Finance and the agency’s director in late 2017 and early 2018. In 2019, the government will present a new proposal for statistics legislation. In it, Statistics Norway’s independence will hopefully be even more solidly anchored.

Governments both decide which statistics should be carried out and they provide the budges. But the agencies and their staff should be free to choose the best method. A lot of statistics is politics, which Iceland’s CO2 emission figures show. Do Icelanders really emit more CO2 per capita than any other European citizens? 

It is important to know where to record emissions from air traffic. Should the carrier’s headquarters decide which country is burdened with the emissions? Does only air traffic in your own air space count? Is it more important to consider the nationality of the tourists, or where the tourist destination is?

When it is uncertain what the statistics actually cover, it is important that all relevant information about how things are recorded is also presented.

There has been a revolution over the past decade in how average citizens can access statistics. Attempts at making money on statistics has rarely been a success, however. The main point is that statistics are worth more the more people share it.

National statistics gets better with cooperation with Europe and the world. It is important to coordinate statistics and make it comparable, like in the new Nordic database where you can also look at integration based on country of origin. 

The Nordic countries are often in the vanguard, like in Denmark where access to microdata is very good. Information can be gathered all the way down to an individual level.

But international cooperation is also a marathon, where stamina is the important thing. Take the major PIAAC project, which measures adult skills. Last time the study was carried out, it was based on 166,000 interviews across 23 countries. Now the second round has just started.


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