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2018 – a trying year for Statistics Norway’s independence

2018 – a trying year for Statistics Norway’s independence

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

Statistics Norway (SSB) did not hold back in its description of itself in its latest annual report: “SSB acts as Norway’s first line of defence in the fight against fake news by providing objective and relevant statistics, research and analysis to help understand Norway,” it says.

Meanwhile, the latest year has been one of the most challenging in SBB’s history. In November last year, the former director Christine Meyer stepped down with immediate effect. Two days earlier, the Minister of Finance Siv Jensen had said she no longer had confidence in the statistics director. 

It all stemmed from a disagreement on how SSB organised its operations. This is how the annual report described the situation:

“SSB operates and maintains around 300 different statistics production systems. Large portions of this system portfolio are outdated and consist of fragmented and inadequately documented tailored solutions.”

As a result, the agency was going to be modernised. The aim was for SSB to produce more analyses and share more data with users, but with a reduced staff. 

With more than 850 employees, SSB is the second largest of its kind in the Nordic region, after Statistics Sweden which employs 1,300 people. SSB has a research department with 80 full-time jobs, which analyses the state of the market amongst other things. In other countries, like Sweden, this job is often performed by other institutions – in the Swedish case, the National Institute of Economic Research.

Photo: Björn Lindahl

SSB also has a large research department which also analyses the state of the market. Here Roger Hammersland  explains the latest movements of the interest rates. 

The precondition for the reorganisation was that SSB would use its own budget to finance a large part of it.

The statistics gathering process will be completely digitalised; both the gathering of data and the distribution and presentation of the statistics. A prerequisite was that the reorganising of the statistics departments should create robust centres of expertise both in Oslo and in Kongsvinger, where nearly 40 percent of the employees work.

The research department at the centre of the storm

The reorganisation also included the research department, and this is where things turned sour between the Minister of Finance and the statistics director. The latter wanted to move one of the researchers, who had been central in calculating the future cost of immigration to Norway, from the research department to the statistics department. This was viewed as a demotion. No written documentation was presented when parliament held a public hearing in January about what had happened, to prove that the immigration researcher’s fate was the reason the Minister of Finance lost confidence in the statistics director.

According to Christine Meyer, the signals from the Minister of Finance had been informal in nature, including things that were said during a dinner. She told parliament that Minister of Finance Siv Jensen in “reality forced her to step down, with no regard to legislation and regulations.”

LO and NHO uneasy

But the reorganisation also worried the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions LO and the Confederation of Norwegian Industries NHO. Both joined forces to warn that the process might threaten the tripartite cooperation between the state and the social partners. SSB is an important provider of statistics covering both price and wage developments, in addition to its economic market reports. 

The conflict between the Minister of Finance and the statistics director got broad media coverage – the number of media stories about SSB increased by 76 percent during 2017. Since the public hearing ended in January, it has been quiet however. 

At the end of 2017 it was decided to reverse the decision to make changes to the research department. After a couple of temporary leaders, Geir Axelsen – a former state secretary for the Labour Party – was appointed director in May this year. 

No signs of drama

When the NLJ visits SSB in Akersveien 26, it is hard to spot any of the drama. The statistics agency has a view over Vår Frelseres Gravlund, a cemetery where many famous Norwegians are buried, including Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsson and Edvard Munch. We have passed the pink “rhubarb palace” where poet and nationalist Henrik Wergeland lived, before we enter the unpretentious brick building.

The security is modern and up-to-date when you enter the SSB offices, but the walls are full of enlargements of black and white pictures from the 1800s.

In Geir Axelsen’s office an entire wall is also covered with a huge photo of what we presume to be some of the agency’s first female employees, sitting in a library. The bookshelf under the photo, however, is still empty.

Geir Axelsen is not surprisingly careful with commenting on what will happen to the research department.

In March, the so-called statistics law committee presented its report on the contents of the statistics legislation. The current legislation was written in 1989, before the internet. Since then, there have been several other changes too. The government will present a proposal for new statistics legislation in 2019.

SSB will continue to do research

“In our comments to the report we argue the case for SSB to continue to carry out research and that economic cycle analysis is one part of what researchers should be doing. But we have nothing more to add beyond what is written in our comments,” says Geir Axelsen.

“This is now an issue for the government, and they must decide the pros and cons with that solution. When the proposed legislation is presented, we will have to relate to that.”

The report says that “a public conflict between an administrative agency and the ministry it belongs under is unusual” and that the SSB “has never experienced a situation like it.”

“But it does not seem fair to explain this conflict as a problem with operations" the statistics report concludes. It still points to the fact that uncertainty remains around “the extent of professional independence” enjoyed by SSB. 

“It is important to me and my staff at SSB to underline the need for professional independence. We presume this will be central also in the proposed statistics legislation,” says Geir Axelsen.

EU also part of the picture

How SSB is run is not only an issue for Norwegian authorities. Through the EEA agreement, Norway is also a part of Eurostat, the EU’s statistics cooperation. Statistics on a country’s GDP is being used as a basis for the funding of the EU, so it is imperative that the statistics are correct and that the statistics agencies are shielded from political influence.  

“In my experience SSB enjoys great trust and that is our most important capital. It takes a long time to build trust, but it can be quickly broken.”

Although the description of SSB as being the first line of defence in the fight against fake news was written before his time, Geir Axelsen says he fully supports it. 

“But our task is of course not to argue or participate in a political debate with politicians or heads of state for that matter. This is not our mission. We will deliver facts, which others can use if they want to.”

Essential for democracy

“To enjoy a high level of trust, to deliver a high quality product, to be professionally independent and all the time present a correct version of facts about Norway compared with the rest of the world – this is essential for democracy since it makes it possible to have an informed public debate and to make good political decisions,” says Geir Axelsen.  

It is, however, not an aim that can be reached once and for all, since both Norway and the rest of the world changes all the time. New statistics are always needed.

“We have to continuously decide which statistics portfolio we need to maintain, to keep in step with how society develops. Digitalisation and globalisation represent particular challenges which makes it harder to produce good numbers. Online shopping is one of those areas. Right now we are establishing a separate unit for large, complex companies operating in Norway. We must make sure we have the correct numbers for value creation, income and expenses.”

Statistics on large, complex companies

Platform companies like Uber and Airbnb, as well as search engine companies like Google, create head aches for the statisticians. 

“Normally you measure the activity in a company by looking at the limit order price – how much it cost to produce the latest unit. But how do you measure an internet search which hardly has any measurable cost at all?

“New business models are being developed all the time, but the fact that the limit order price is small is not entirely new. Think about radio, which has been around for a while. Getting one extra listener doesn’t incur any extra cost either. So we have seen this before, a network economy with a zero limit order price.

“But it is exciting. Our challenge is to keep up with developments and find new and good sources for statistics.”

How important is it that Norway, through the EEA agreement, is also a part of Eurostat?

“This is important for several reasons. Firstly, this sharing of knowledge improves quality. You have a professional method debate where you make comparisons between different countries. You learn from each other’s challenges, and therefore this kind of community is important. 

“But statistics become even more interesting when you can compare with another country. It increases the interest thanks to the fact that you compare apples and apples. You simply add to the knowledge you already have,” says Geir Axelsen.

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