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The Organization of Official Statistics in Europe


W.F.M. de Vries

This article deals with similarities in and differences between legislation concerning official statistics in the region of the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE). The CBS has undertaken to make a comparative study of some aspects of legislation concerning official statistics in ECE countries, such as the position of the central statistical agencies, statistical commissions and privacy protection. A reference manual on this subject will appear shortly as a UN publication.

1. Introduction

The Conference of European Statisticians, one of the subsidiary bodies of the Economic Commission for Europe, is the annual forum where the heads of national statistical agencies of ECE countries exchange information on current developments in official statistics, as well as discuss the statistical programmes and activities of the ECE. About every four years the Statistical Division of the ECE organizes seminars for heads of national statistical agencies, dedicated tot the in-depth discussion of certain important themes.

The first of these seminars took place in Washington D.C. (USA) in 1977, and dealt with "National and international statistical services in ten years time". The second one was held in Moscow (USSR) in 1981, and had "Statistical data collection and processing systems under new conditions" as its central theme. The third and most recent seminar was organized in Paris (France) in 1986, and focussed on the role and functions of
statistical services within the overall information system of countries. For this seminar the Netherlands Central Bureau of Statistics undertook to make a comparative study of some aspects of statistical legislation.

Over 30 countries sent the Bureau documentation from which a paper was compiled concentrating on three groups of issues: 1) The functions, legal basis and position of national statistical agencies within the administrative system; 2) The functions and composition of national statistical commissions; 3) Legislation of particular interest for national statistical agencies, including legislation concerning the protection of privacy. After discussion of the paper during the seminar it was concluded that it would be useful to have the collected material published in a more standarized format with the completion of missing points of information, the correction of certain misinterpretations of legal texts and the addition of items concerning recent developments.

2. Comparison of national statistical systems

Comparing national statistical systems is a complicated matter, especially when a lager number of countries are involved, with often fundamentally different socio-economic and political systems. Moreover, the structure of statistical legislation in the ECE countries shows an extensive range of variations, from rather concise legal regulations (or no formal legislation at all), to very detailed statistics laws and related administrative documents. In addition, the interpretation of these legal documents is often difficult, and requires assistance and additional information from national experts. Fortunately, the co-operation received in this respect from our colleagues in all the countries concerned was excellent, a fact for which we are most grateful.

The reference manual on statistical legislation which is to be published shortly by the United Nations (Economic Commission for Europe) deals with a substantial number of issues only, i.e. the position of the national statistical agency (and its head) within the government organization as a whole, the existence, functions and composition of national statistical commissions, aspects of (de)centralization of statistical systems, some aspects of statistical independence and legislation on the protection of privacy.

3. Position of the national statistical agency

First of all, it should be recognized that, whatever is status and tasks may be, some kind of national statistical agency does indeed exist in all countries of the ECE region. Some of these bodies have existed for a respectably long period of time. In many countries, the history of official statistics goes back far into the 19th and sometimes even 18th century.

In France, for example, there has been a central bureau for statistics since 1883 (Statistique g‚n‚rale de France) and in Sweden a so-called Office of Tables was established as early as 1749. In the Soviet Union the Central Statistical Committee, predecessor of the present Central Statistical Board, was founded in 1857 and the Hungarian Central Statistical Office dates from 1876. Most national statistical institutes therefore have roots that go back a century or more.

However, in most countries changes have taken place since then, as far as the structure of the statistical system is concerned. Obviously, some of these changes are closely related to developments in the overall political and socio-economic system, e.g. in the socialist countries, where the statistical system now forms an integrated part of the government information and planning systems.

A general statistics 'law' of some sort exists in a large majority of the countries concerned. The only real exceptions are the United Kingdom and United States, although in the United Kingdom a substantial part of the work of the Government Statistical Service is controlled by specific Acts of Parliament.

It must, however, be said that these general statistics laws vary greatly in scope and nature. Some of them describe the functions of the statistical agency in great detail. Many of them also regulate the obligation of persons, households, enterprises and other institutions to supply basic information for statistical purposes, including the penalties in case of refusal to do this. Most of these statistics laws contain provisions on statistical secrecy and the protection of privacy.

On the other hand there are some rather concise statistics 'laws', such as the Royal Decree on the Central Bureau and the Central Commission of Statistics in the Netherlands, which only describes, in a very succinct form, the rights and duties of the Director General of Statistics, the relation between the Central Bureau and the Central Commission, and the role of the Central Commission in the centralization of official statistics.

A number of national statistical agencies is placed directly under the supervision of the Council of Ministers. This applies, for example, to all socialist countries. In some other cases the agency forms part of, or is attached to the office of the Chief Executive. This holds true for the United Kingdom, where the Central Statistical Office is part of the Cabinet Office, and has been so since the time of Winston Churchill, whose concern was that figures presented to the cabinet were on an agreed basis so that members of the Cabinet did not need to argue about them. In the USA, the bureau which coordinates official statistics (compiled by a substantial number of departments and bureaus) is part of the Office of Management and Budget, an institution within the Executive Office of the President.

In about half of the countries concerned the national statistical agency is attached to a specific ministry. This does not imply, however, that the minister has an important role to play in statistical policy; usually the link is only of a formal nature, although in some instances, in France for example, the minister concerned chairs the Statistical Commission. In about half of the cases where the national statistical agency is attached to one particular ministery, this is the Ministery of Economic Affairs or an equivalent of such a ministery (in some countries the minister of Economic affairs is also responsible for Finance and the Budget). Ministries of Finance and of the Interior share the second place.

Although titles as such may not be very significant as an indication for status within the government service, it may be noted that in two-thirds of the countries involved the heads of national statistical offices have the position of directors (general); some are called president. Other titles used are Secretary General (Greece), Chief Statistician (Canada) and National Statistician (Denmark). The Director of the Central Statistical Office in the United Kingdom also holds the title of Head of the Government Statistical Service, which is inherent to the particular (decentralized) structure of official statistics in that country. In most socialist countries, the heads of national statistical services have (semi) ministerial status; they often participate in meetings of the Council of Ministers.

Some heads of national statistical offices have special tasks and responsibilities apart from statistics as such. Specific examples are Switzerland, where the director of the federal statistical office is responsible for the management of the government computer centre; the Federal Republic of Germany, where the President of the Statistisches Bundesamt is responsible for the national registers of the electorate; and Denmark and Iceland, where the responsibility for the national registers of enterprises and establishments is attached to the statistical office; and the German Democratic Republic has an important role to play as far as standards and instructions for bookkeeping by enterprises and other institutions is concerned. It may also be noted that a number of national statistical offices are to some extent entrusted with tasks in the area of economic forecasting and planning (France, Luxembourg). The director of the French national statistical office, finally, has one rather unique specific task: to provide technical assistance for the development of statistics in Third World countries.

4. Statistical commissions

A major point of concern for every national statistical agency is to provide the statistics that the users need. This implies at least two major problems. First of all, the "clients" of statistical agencies from a very broad spectrum of different people and institutions, from government agencies to private enterprises, the general public, the media, researchers etc. Hence it is very difficult to oversee all their needs and wishes. Secondly, generally speaking, the user always want more than the statistical agency can possible produce, considering budgetary restrictions, which implies the setting of priorities in statistical programmes.
One of the means to ensure good relations between users and producers of statistics are statistical commissions. Roughly speaking, their functions may encompass four different areas.

The first and most universal function of statistical commissions is to be a platform where the users' needs are confronted with the producers' possibilities. Secondly, statistical commissions may be responsible for the co-ordination of official statistics. This aspect is particularly relevant in countries where official statistics are produced not by one, but by a number of separate agencies. Thirdly, statistical commissions (or their subcommittees) often function as advisory bodies to the national statistical agency as far as methodological and operational problems are concerned. Finally, some statistical commissions are supposed to play a (sometimes decisive) role in setting priorities in statistical programmes.

In two-thirds of the countries of the ECE region there is a statistical commission of some sort. However, there are distinct differences as far as their size, composition and responsibilities are concerned.

The size of statistical commissions varies from a membership of 10 or less (in countries like Denmark of Sweden) to 50 and more (the Netherlands, about 50 members; France, about 100 members). Usually, the composition of statistical commissions is such that important groups of users of statistics (government departments, employers' organisations, labour unions, regional bodies, research institutes) are represented. In some cases, membership is confined to representatives from ministries and other government bodies.

Quite often, the statistical commission is chaired by the head of the government statistical service. This is usually the case when the task of the commission is purely advisory. In a number of countries the statistical commission is chaired by a minister; in Portugal even by the Prime Minister.

Some countries have statistical commissions with a very limited responsibility, consumer price indices, for example. In other countries there are, apart from the statistical commission as such, specialized commissions for methodological questions, mainly consisting of experts in certain fields of statistics.

Only rarely do statistical commissions have the final say in matters of priority setting. This is the case in the Netherlands, where the Central Commission for Statistics, a body with a very independent status, takes the final decisions on the statistical programmes of the Central Bureau of Statistics.

5. Centralization/decentralization

One aspect of the organization of official statistics which has been an important subject of discussion over the years is the degree of centralization of the national statistical system. This is, however, a highly complicated matter, as there are many possible forms and degrees of centralization or decentralization.

Theoretically, in a purely centralized statistical system the national statistical agency is responsible for the collection, processing and dissemination of all official statistics at the national level. Examples of countries where this model is more or less fully realized are Sweden an the Netherlands. Nevertheless, even there the national statistical office is not the sole producer of official national statistics. Exceptions mainly relate to certain fields of statistics which are closely associated with the management of certain government services, such as national health, social security, the penitentiary system and others.

In the Netherlands, statistics on registered employment have up to now been compiled by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, on the basis of registrations kept by the Regional Employment Offices. The government has recently decided, however, that the responsibility for unemployment statistics will shortly be transferred to Central Bureau of Statistics.

In many countries, including those with a centralized system, the responsibility for statistics on balance of payment (and/or the banking sector as a whole)lies with the Central Bank; sometimes there is a shared responsibility with the national statistical agency.

As far as decentralized systems are concerned there are many possible variations. The two main forms of decentralization, however, are what may be called territorial decentralization on the one hand and functionel or sectoral decentralization on the other. In a number of countries there is a mixture of these two forms.

Territorial decentralization often reflects the general political and administrative structure of countries. In these systems the collection, processing and dissemination of statistical information is primarily the responsibility of statistical offices at the regional or local levels. Often, but not always, the national statistical office has a strong co- ordinating position in situations such as these, but sometimes this only applies to certain types of statistics, whereas the regional statistical agencies have a certain latitude to comply with special regional needs for statistics. Some examples of countries where statistical services at the regional level are fairly strongly developed are the Federal Republic of Germany and many of the socialist countries.

In functionally or sectorally decentralized systems, statistics are mainly compiled by ministries and/or a number of specialized statistical agencies. Examples of countries where the separate ministries compile a large part of the official statistics are the United Kingdom and France. In both countries the national statistical service has an important co-ordinating role. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Director of the Central Bureau Statistical Office is also Head of the Government Statistical Service, which implies, among other things, that he is responsible for the career development of professional statisticians working in the statistical directorates of the various ministries.
In decentralized systems the national statistical service is usually at least responsible for long-range statistical planning, the compilation of national accounts, the production of national statistical yearbooks, the development of statistical standards, classification and methodology, the secretariat of the statistical commission (if any) and for international statistical relations and co-operation.

6. Independence of national statistical services

The general notion that statistical information has to be impartial, as well as freely accessible to all participants in the democratic process, is widespread. The way these principles are realized varies from country to country.

First of all it should be noted that, because official statistics are, by definition, financed from public means, the government and/or regional authorities (and, finally, parliament or an equivalent body) determine the general level of official statistical activities and possibilities. Obviously, all national statistical agencies have to operate within certain budgetary limits. As a rule, the budget for the centralized part of official statistics is centrally determined.

In some countries, such as Israel and Sweden, with fairly centralized statistical systems, forms of decentralized financing methods have been established, in the sense that parts of the budget of the national statistical service are provided by separate ministries, having a specific interest in certain parts of the statistical programme. In some countries, national statistical services are allowed to engage in "contract research", which means that they may carry out certain specific statistical projects, financed by specifically interested parties, both from within and outside the government sector.

The question may be raised for what purpose official statistics are to be made: mainly or exclusively as an instrument to support or evaluate government policy or also for the benefit of private enterprises, social organizations etc.? The answer to this question more or less determines how decisions on programmes of official statistics are made. In most countries these decisions appear to be made by the government or by one of the ministers, acting on behalf of the government. Often, however, this responsibility seems to be delegated to the head of the national statistical service, after due consultation of interested parties and/or a national statistical commission.

As far as the organization of statistical work is concerned, including methodological questions, forms and contents of questionnaires, data processing techniques etc., it seems that the professional expertise and integrity of heads of statistical offices is universally acknowledged and respected. The publication of statistical results is also considered to be the responsibility of the head of the national statistical office, although in some countries some form of consent from the government for the publication of statistical information is required.

7. Statistical secrecy and the protection of privacy

In many of the countries involved, the duty of official statistical services to quarantee the confidentiality of individual data, collected for statistical purposes, is explicitly laid down in the statistical laws. On the other hand, many of these statistics laws also contain provisions on the duty of enterprises, households and persons to provide basic information for official statistical inquiries, and the penalties which may be applied in case of refusal to supply this information and/or the supply of incorrect information.

In most cases, this statistical confidentiality means that individual data are to be used for statistical purposes only and cannot be passed on to any other body or person, including government services, fiscal authorities or courts of law, under any circumstances. In Italy, the use of these individual data for certain court proceedings is not entirely excluded, although very strict procedures must be followed in these cases.

Many statistical agencies have, of course established their own internal, practical rules on publication techniques to prevent disclosure of individual information on enterprises. In France these rules seem to be more or less public: no figures are published relating to less than three units, or figures involving one unit which contributes 85% or more to the total result.

Apart from general rules for statistical confidentiality, specific legislation on the protection of data on persons and households exists in about half of the countries involved. Some of this legislation only applies to data stored in a computerized form of to well-defined categories of registers of individual persons. In a number of countries, specialized agency (Data Inspectorate) is responsible for the implementation of this legislation. Often, this agency is also responsible for granting concessions for the establishments of registers.

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