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Statistics Netherlands in an international perspective (rev 1)

Statistics Netherlands in an international perspective

(note by Willem de Vries, June 1999, rev.1)


The question has been raised whether Statistics Netherlands is big and costly, compared with similar organisations in other countries. It is difficult to answer this question with any degree of preciseness. Only a very global comparison is possible. Comparions of this kind are rather problematic. This has to do with:

*) The general organisational structure of statistics (centralised or decentralised)

*) Coverage of the statistical work program (which subject matter areas are covered; the work program of Statistics Netherlands, for example, covers a very wide range of subject matter areas)

*) Size of the country (there are certain economies of scale; on the other hand it should be recognised that large countries often have some sort of regionalised statistical structure, which may imply inefficiencies)

*) Administrative and legal infrastructure (which may be relevant for the possibilities to use registers for statistical purposes)

*) Special responsibilities that some national statistical offices may have (e.g. economic analysis)

Some explanations

*) What is meant by ‘central’ and ‘decentral’? In some countries (e.g. The Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, Canada and others) the production of national statistics is the responsibility of one single organisation (regardless of the number of ‘offices’ it may have). In other countries, however, there is some kind of decentralisation, either regionally (often, but not always, in combination with a ‘federal’ administrative structure), or departmentally (ministries producing statistics for their own policy areas), or a combination of various forms of decentralisation. ‘Pure’ forms of ‘central’ and ‘decentral’ are relatively rare, but it is believed that any form of decentralisation implies certain negative efficiency effects.

*) A factor that is difficult to measure is: what is the role and significance of statistics in individual countries? To what extent are political and adminstrative decisions (e.g. the financing of regional and local authorities, budget policies, wage bargaining etc.) based on statistics? It seems that many countries have forms of ‘formula use’ of statistics, which gives statistics some extra weight. In countries that have a kind of federal structure this is certainly true, but it also applies to the European Union. It is hard to say what effects this phenomenon has on statistical expenditure. For the countries of the European Union that are part of the comparison in this note, it may be said that they all have to comply with the so-called ‘acquis communautaire’ (for Statistics Netherlands, 70% of the work program is covered by European Regulations and Directives), and therefore have a more or less comparable situation.

*) As to ‘administrative and legal infrastructure’, an important question is to what extent there are registrations in place (in the Anglosaxon countries, for instance, there are no population registers) and secondly, whether there are (legal and other) arrangements in place that enable statistical offices to use those registrations for statistical purposes (in the Scandinavian countries these arrangements are very well developed). If there are no registrations, or if they may for some reason or other not be used for statistics, other forms of data collection are necessary (e.g. population censuses), which are relatively more expensive.


The comparison in this note deals with some larger and medium-sized, economically developed countries, which have a statistical system that is generally considered to be good or adequate (e.g. according to the league table developed by The Economist in 1993, which ranked Canada, Australia and The Netherlands as the top three). Besides The Netherlands, eight countries are being compared, including six European countries: Sweden, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and outside Europe Canada and Australia.

Brief outline of the statistical systems

Germany, France and the United Kingdom (although recently measures towards more centralisation have been taken) have fairly decentralised statistical systems.

The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Canada and Australia have a centralised system, even though some of these countries have more than one statistical ‘office’, either offices per state or province (Australia, Canada), or two locations (Sweden, The Netherlands).

In Germany there is a Statistisches Bundesamt (in Wiesbaden, roughly 500 kms form the government centre Berlin, where there used to be a fairly large branch office, which is being moved to Bonn, the former government centre, as a compensation for the ministries that are being replaced from Bonn to Berlin). However, most of the data collection and dissemination is done by the statistical offices of the Länder.

France has both regional and departmental decentralisation. Apart from the central office INSEE (Institut Nationale pour la Statistique et les Analyses Économiques) in Paris, the ministries have their own statistical departments (rather loosely connected with INSEE, which appoints the senior statistical managers, however), but in addition INSEE has some dozens of regional offices for data collection and dissemination.

The United Kingdom, traditionally, had a small central statistical office (set up by Winston Churchill duringWorld War II), but most statistics used to be produced by ministries. Coordination and trust problems in the nineties led to centralisation of the most important economic and social statistics in one office (Office for National Statistics; ONS). Part of ONS is located on London, but there are some other offices as well, including one in Newport (Wales, roughly 250 kms from London).

Statistics Canada has its central office in Ottawa, but there are offices in each of the Canadian provinces as well.

In Australia the central office of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is located in Canberra, but in addition there is an ABS office in each of the states. These regional offices do some specific statistical work for the government of their state as well as some data collection and dissemination for the ABS, but they are also responsible for a certain part of the national statistical program, e.g. business registers and service statistics (Melbourne), mining (Adelaide), or the financial sector (Sydney).

Sweden (Stockholm/Orebro) and The Netherlands (Voorburg/Heerlen) have one statistical office with two locations (in either case about 200 kms apart). Norway and Ireland have a similar structure. Finland and Denmark, finally, have one organisation and one location.

Comparison of some indicators

The table below compares some indicators for the nine countries mentioned, in particular inhabitants and number of ‘official statisticians’, as well as increase/decrease over a certain time period, and government spending on official statistics, related to GDP (1998).

Explanation and commentary

General: Expenditure in % of GDP is based on gross budgets. The share of ‘own’ income that statistical offices may have (sales of publications, specially financed projects) as a rule varies from 10-20% of the overall budget (in the case of Statistics Netherlands it is about 10%).

Germany: The increase in the number of statisticians between 1983 and 1998 is mainly a result of the re-unification of Germany. Part of the GDR statisticians were taken over by the Bundesamt.

United Kingdom: The recent history of Bristish statistics has been turbulent. In the Thatcher period severe budget cuts were implemented, based on the philosophy that official statistics had to serve government interests only. Later on this policy was partly reversed. In addition some major mergers of statistical offices took place. This makes comparisons over time rather difficult. However, it would seem that official statistics in the UK are remarkably inexpensive.

Canada: The increase of staff between 1988 and 1998 is partly due to new statistical work to support the redistribution of VAT between some Canadian provincies. This involves some 700 staff. Excluding this effect, the number of statisticians per million inhabitants would be 237 for Canada.

France: The numbers include the Départments d’Outre-Mer. In addition to production of statistics, INSEE is also charged with economic analysis. It is difficult to say precisely how many staff are engaged in this work, but 200 would seem a fair estimate.

Scandinavian countries: In Sweden, Finland and Denmark a substantial part of official statistics (80-90%) is made on the basis of register information. In The Netherlands this part is estimated at 60%. In Sweden, official statistics are financed in a rather unusual way: instead of on the basis of a central budget, a substantial part of the program (40-50%) is financed on the basis of ‘contracts’ that Statistics Sweden has to agree with other agencies. This makes comparison of expenditure difficult.

Some general conclusions

1. Compared with some other countries, the ratio statisticians/inhabitants and statistical expenditure/GDP, the cost level of Netherlands Statistics is ‘average’. In some countries (which, by the way, have excellent statistical systems), statistics are clearly more expensive.
2. Of all countries in the comparison, the cost of Dutch statistics have been reduced the most over the last ten to fifteen years. Only Sweden and the United Kingdom have experienced similar developments.

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