The public good of statistics – narratives from around the world

Blog by Ken Roy:” I have been looking at some of the narratives used by bodies producing Official Statistics – specifically those in a sample of recent strategies and business plans from different National Statistical Offices. Inevitably these documents focus on planned programmes of work – the key statistical outputs, the technical and methodological investments etc – and occasionally on interesting things like budgets.

When these documents touch on the rationale for (or purpose of) Official Statistics, one approach is to present Official Statistics as a ‘right’ of citizens or as essential national infrastructure. For example Statistics Finland frame Official Statistics as “our shared national capital”. A further common approach is to reference the broad purpose of improved decision making – Statistics Canada has the aim that “Canadians have the key information they need to make evidence-based decisions.”

Looking beyond these high-level statements, I was keen to find any further, more specific, expressions of real-world impacts. The following sets out some initial groups of ideas and some representative quotes.

In terms of direct impacts for citizens, some strategies have a headline aim that citizens are knowledgeable about their world – Statistics Iceland aims to enable an “informed society”. A slightly different ambition is that different groups of citizens are represented or ‘seen’ by Official Statistics. The UK Statistics Authority aims to “reflect the experiences of everyone in our society so that everyone counts, and is counted, and no one is forgotten”. There are also references to the role of Official Statistics (and data more broadly) in empowering citizens – most commonly through giving them the means to hold government to account. One of the headline aims of New Zealand’s Data Investment Plan is that “government is held to account through a robust and transparent data system”.

Also relevant to citizens is the ambition for Official Statistics to enable healthy, informed public debate – one aim of the Australian Bureau of Statistics is that their work will “provide reliable information on a range of matters critical to public debate”.

Some narratives hint at the contribution of Official Statistics systems to national economic success. Stats NZ notes that “the integrity of official data can have wide-ranging implications … such as the interest charged on government borrowing.” The Papua New Guinea statistics office references a focus on “private sector investors who want to use data and statistics to aid investment decisions”.

Finally, we come to governments. Official Statistics are regularly presented as essential to a better, more effective, government process – through establishing understanding of the circumstances and needs of citizens, businesses and places and hence supporting the development and implementation of better policies, programmes and services in response. The National Bureau of Statistics (Tanzania) sees Official Statistics as enabling “evidence-based formulation, planning, monitoring and evaluation which are key in the realization of development aspirations.” A related theme is the contribution to good governance – the United Nations presents Official Statistics as “an essential element of the accountability of governments and public bodies to the public in a democratic society…(More)”.