Crises, politics and statistics

Official Statistics COVID-19

This special discussion on the SJIAOS discussion platform focuses on the roles of Official Statistics in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. It states the important role that official statistics will have to play in the phase of world-wide recovery from the pandemic and the rapid investments and actions that are needed to fulfill properly this role. It also emphasizes the importance of investing in achieving the objectives of the SDG indicators, the need to develop new statistics and using modern data sources, and last but not least the establishment of a new role of official statistics in the public statistical infrastructure.

Official Statistics in the context of the COVID-19 crisis

This discussion on the SJIAOS discussion platform ( is based on the following statement[1].

Now epidemiology is most important, in the next phase other statistics will become relevant again!

The enormous importance of statistics in the preparation of difficult political decisions has seldom been as clear as it is now in the current phase of the pandemic crisis.

While in the current, first phase of crisis management, where essentially the health risks of this epidemic vis-à-vis the absorption capacities of national health systems were sufficient to justify the measures taken, this will be completely different in the next phases. In order to decide when and how quarantine and isolation can and should be ended and transferred to other forms, important other aspects will have to be considered, such as domestic violence, unemployment, collateral illnesses (depression, suicide), economic consequences (despite or because of the financial support measures), ecological facilitations. At the same time, all the topics that were given lower priority in the short-term crisis mode will be on the agenda again. Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, overcoming poverty and inequality, protecting the climate and biodiversity and other goals set out in the global strategy until 2030 will not be easier to achieve after the COVID-19 crisis, quite the contrary. We (politics, societies at large) will be faced over the coming years with multiple and extremely complex decisions that require an unprecedented level of speed, quality and reliability of new metrics in more or less all fields: economy, distributive justice, unemployment, agriculture, transport, energy, health, education, to name but a few.

Not just the current, but many new statistics are needed

The fallout from the current crisis will be found in all areas and variables observed by statistics. As if that wasn't enough; there will be an urgent need for new statistics, more urgent than ever before. New statistics in this case also means new services, new forms of communication, new software, new networks, new forms of statistical education and last but not least: new data sources (i.e. new surveys and other means for observing phenomena of interest).

SDG’s information as the all-encompassing framework

Now would be the moment to take the UN SDGs seriously and interpret them as what they should be and could achieve. They could enable a great transformation (in terms of change of behaviour and long term societal development). However, first of all, SDG-relevant information (indicators, accounts, statistics) needs to be seen as the all-encompassing and defining methodological framework into which all statistics should fit. Secondly, the existing statistical information would now need to be rapidly supplemented with very short-term solutions and, in part, inputs from external sources. Thirdly, open data, publications and evidence-based networks and collaborations should be actively promoted. Fourthly, the Codes of Practice should urgently be adapted to this new and considerably modified situation (for example, also by means of appropriate information and communication of the quality profiles, i.e. labelling). All in all, official statistics should actively contribute to mastering the current short-term crisis and the development of a SDG compatible exit strategy, which is directly linked to the fact that the SDGs (all of them) are regularly monitored by statistics.

Official statistics should be on board to help in crisis management

In the near future, politicians will be confronted with extremely complex decision problems. The technical consulting teams for crisis management will therefore be multidisciplinary. It would be of major importance for statisticians to be on board here to contribute their various potential strengths, such as wealth of methods, experience in various applications, comprehensive information infrastructure, long time series, solidity and trust.

A new role for official statistics in the public statistical infrastructure

All of this will require innovation and an openness to solutions that will not necessarily fit into the forms and frameworks established in quieter times. And all this presupposes that the statistical institutions are set up in such a way that they can meet these new requirements. This would require a public statistical infrastructure that is at the same time professionally independent, high-performing and innovative.

‘Official statistics’ has to adapt quickly to the changing circumstances

What will be the reservations about such a bold strategic positioning? A characteristic argument will be linked to the question of what official statistics actually is and how far one can diversify without endangering the brand core. For this discussion it is crucial to remember official statistics’ DNA[2] and that there is no such thing as the quasi fateful definition of what official statistics means. The status we know today is the result of an evolution over many years, decades, in terms of institutions (who), programmes (what) and methods (how). This development was and is influenced by political events, scientific progress and new data sources. Most of the time, this evolution is very slow and steady, so we are hardly aware of it. Nevertheless, it does happen, which we can make clear to ourselves, for example, by the fact that a statistician before the economic crisis of the 1930s and before Keynes could hardly have imagined that we now have GDP as an important indicator in our portfolio. Alain Desrosières has worked out in detail the interrelation between the state and statistics; with him one could even speak of statistics for ‘the making of the state’.

Statistics will play an active role in shaping the world of tomorrow

What the world will look like after the current crisis and whether or not we move towards sustainable development (or to life as it was) is completely open today. What is clear, however, is the need for statistics to play an active role in this making of the world of tomorrow. In doing so, it is important to open up widely to new possibilities and necessities. Is it possible to create new forms of cooperation with other players, located outside the traditional city walls, which could benefit from the know-how or the reputation of statistics (e.g. by assigning appropriate labels, such as "operated by Official Statistics")? Should consideration be given to strengthening the service branch of the official statistics industry (e.g. by providing software, awarding quality certificates, acting as data steward or helping to set up and conduct statistical surveys)? Could it for example be a task for official statistics to establish a reporting system for biodiversity comparable to the system of population statistics?

Rapid action and substantial investment are needed

All these innovations presuppose that one has the required capacities to launch and realize them. After decades of austerity policy, however, statistical institutes hardly have the reserves and the necessary research and development capacities that are so urgently needed right now. In the health care system, the comparable deficiency has now entered the public debate, although this cannot yet be observed with regard to similar problems in statistics. Taken together, it can be concluded that a call for rapid action must be made right now. It must not take months and years for coordination processes. Rather, a wide variety of ideas and initiatives should sprout in a decentralized way and at the same time international networks and cooperation should be promoted. Above all, however, official statistics must draw the attention of the public to their importance and their miserable situation, so that an appropriate share of the enormous financial sums currently being spent on crisis management is also invested in improving adequate statistical evidence. 



[1] The text of this statement has been prepared by Walter J. Radermacher and subscribed by the president of the IAOS, John Pullinger.

[2] See W.J. Radermacher „Official Statistics 4.0”


Comment on:
25/04/2020 22h59

I find the discussion and opening statements very interesting
I would like to make a sort comment in the context of the following two statements

- Official Statistics should be on board to help in crisis management

- A new role for official statistics in the public statistical infrastructure

To start my comment I would summarise the role of a National Statistical Office (NSO) briefly as
"ensuring the right of a person to live in an informed society ", balancing this role with the right to privacy while undertaking this role in an open and transparent manner. Informed decision making is necessary for smarter and better outcomes.

In fulfilling this role NSOs have developed and implemented relevant infrastructure, methods and standards with respect to their work. One primary competence is safeguarding data.

Much of the subject matter knowledge to inform the Government response to C19 typically resides in academia type settings or other specialised teams, not necessarily in NSOs. Much of the data needed to inform the Government response lies in Government or privately held databases . This gap can cause difficulties for many countries.

In times of crisis, is there a new role emerging for NSOs (and ISOs) to react quickly and safely in partnership with stakeholders to ensure relevant decision makers have fast and reliable information for smarter decisions and better outcomes. Is this role already here - I think it is .... NSOs need to develop the capability to move fast, if they haven't already.

John Dunne



Comment on:
28/04/2020 12h19

A government roadmap for addressing the climate and post COVID-19 economic crises (… )

"The COVID-19 pandemic presents the world with an unprecedented policy challenge: not only will it have a severe impact on the global economy likely to exceed that of both the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis and the Great Depression, it will take place against the backdrop of the ongoing climate crisis.
In acknowledging the magnitude of this unprecedented challenge, the priority for governments must first be the immediate emergency response focussing on saving lives, supporting health infrastructure, food availability, and the many other urgent social and economic support measures such as short-term job allowances, direct cash handouts to citizens, or targeted liquidity support to SMEs. But solving the COVID-19 crisis cannot come at the expense of solving the longer-term issue facing humanity: the climate crisis.
The question of how the economic recovery is designed remains crucial in shaping the long-term pathways for emissions and determining whether the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C temperature limit can be achieved. Our analysis points to strong economic and climate change advantages if governments were to adopt green stimulus packages in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conversely, if governments don’t roll out low carbon development strategies and policies - or roll back existing climate policies - in response to the coming economic crisis, emissions could rebound and even overshoot previously projected levels by 2030, despite lower economic growth in the period to 2030. This report shows that the future is for governments to choose. COVID-19 recovery presents both opportunities and threats to enhancing our resilience to climate change."


M. De Smedt

Comment on:
29/04/2020 18h52

Thank you, Walter, for launching this very timely discussion ! The points you raised in your text are indeed the key issues which need attention not only from the statistical community, but also from politicians, managers and the public at large.

I would like to contribute with the following reflections:

1. Health matters

Having spent a significant part of my career in the field of health statistics at EU level, I had to convince many colleagues and superiors of the importance of the domain (see comment of M.Wolfson). The Covid19 crisis now clearly demonstrates that those who say that health is only a matter of a patient and his/her doctor and that statistics on ‘health and safety’ are not important, have to think twice.

2. All domains and sectors are affected by this crisis

This Covid19 crisis has also dramatic consequences on many other aspects of our personal lives and on so many sectors of our societies at local, national or global level. This type of worldwide crisis needs a comprehensive management and monitoring infrastructure and an active engagement of many actors in all domains and sectors and at all geographical levels.

3. Managing the health crisis, scientific expertise at the front level

As for the immediate management of the impact of the SARS – cov 2 virus on public health, all actors as well as the larger public are eager to see the daily facts and figures. But, beyond figures, more information is needed and available (as mentioned by J.Dunne), such as quick results of relevant studies and research on the virus, results of modelling and expert opinions on different confinement measures and exit strategies and on possible medications and planning for a vaccin.

Efficient cooperation between different providers of information and data (statistical institutes, universities, ministries of health and national scientific institutes on public health) is essential. The statements ‘public health is the first priority’ and ‘we rely on scientific expertise’, are now heard in many of the governments’ press releases, but also in many daily conversations.

4. Official statistics; about data and statistical tools

Because of the urgency, countries initially relied on rapidly available (health) data, which do not necessarily fulfill the quality requirements of official statistics. As mentioned by some of you in your comments to W.Radermacher's text, several national (and regional) statistical institutes have stepped up efforts by providing more rapidly official health statistics in order to correct and complete the early figures. They also offered their statistical expertise on methodologies, reporting mechanisms and quality assurance for developing new instruments. As mentioned by P.Diaz, providing such services of official statistics, has resulted in the ad-hoc surveys on Covid19 (launched or about to be launched in BE, ES and FIN) destined to fill in the data gaps, mainly on the impact of the virus and of confinement measures on people’s lives.

5. Monitoring and managing all aspects of the crisis

Good information and data on so many other sectors and domains is needed, as well as guidance on the objectives to be achieved at all geographical levels. As W. Radermacher states, the Agenda 2030 provides the worldwide framework on the way forward, on the (17) SDGs and targets to be achieved and on the monitoring required. important to know is that not only national and local governments, but also many companies and NGOs are using the 17 SDGs as a framework to set their own goals.

This is good news: the framework is there and could help us in monitoring and managing us in the way out of this crisis.

6. What could/should be done at EU level ?

The competences of the EU in the field of public health are now solely limited to exchanging information, promoting public health and helping countries tackling common challenges such as in the case of pandemics. But organizing and delivering health care is the responsibility of the national governments which explains the different approaches and measures taken by countries in this crisis situation. Only for health statistics, a statistical legal ‘package’ is available.

At a later stage, health statistics - building common definitions and methodologies at EU level - will show us the outcome of these different approaches and could maybe lead countries to give the EU more competencies in the field of public health.

A more detailed article will follow.

Marleen De Smedt, former Head of Unit on health statistics in Eurostat and former adviser (on SDGs) to the DG of Eurostat


Dennis Trewin

Comment on:
02/05/2020 14h23

Last weeks I facilitated a workshop between statisticians and some of the epidemiologists and bio-mathematicians working closely with Government on the COVID-19 crisis. The objective was to work out how statisticians could best assist their endeavours. Not all are directly related to official statistics but I thought they may be of interest.

IN THE SHORT TERM (ie over the next month)
1. The tests to date have been on a ‘self-selected’ basis. They will not be representative of the population at large and so care needs to be taken on what inferences can be made about the population at large. For example, NSW and Victoria are encouraging testing to anyone who wants it. This will have a bias towards those people who have the time and capacity to drive to a site. Young adults and children are less likely to be tested. The better educated are more likely to be tested. Statisticians could provide advice on how get the best possible population inferences from the active virological (self-selected) testing regime (by geo-demographic reweighting?) and the likely limitations (biases). They could explain what the estimates mean (e.g. possible upper bound rather than actual ratio of infected persons). The extent of advice depends on the amount of geo-demographic information that is associated with individual test results.
2. At first glance, the self-selected sample might seem to produce an upward bias because people who are symptomatic are more likely to be tested. However, it is also likely that the self-selected sample will under-represent children and young adults especially males. These may be more likely to be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic although not tested and, if so, this would provide a bias in the opposite direction. Statisticians could provide advice on how to best supplement the active testing sample with populations that will be under-represented.
3. Statisticians could Review procedures for estimating R0 (the basic reproduction number). This is a crucial statistic for future planning but the statistical science behind it might be able to be improved (Methodology available on the Doherty web site).
IN THE MEDIUM TERM (Until the virus is under control but should start work in the short term)
4. As soon as feasible, a national survey be conducted jointly by the ABS and health authorities to estimate the number of infections after restrictions start being released. This information is very important for monitoring the potential for a second wave that is difficult to contain. It is may become more important in the winter months when there will be more overlap between COVID-19 symptoms and other winter ailments. Also, the number of asymptotic infections is unknown. International studies show the percentage is much higher than what health experts believe is the case in Australia. Statisticians might be able to assist the ABS with the analysis of the data. The survey should be repeated until there is confidence the virus is under control.
5. Assist with the design, calibration and analysis of sewage testing. It could be combined with the national survey in the first instance to provide a ‘calibration experiment’. This would allow calibration with what we see in the population reducing the need for large scale surveys in the future.


Comment on:
14/05/2020 18h50

Official statistics should be on board to help in crisis management

In the near future, politicians will be confronted with extremely complex decision problems. The technical consulting teams for crisis management will therefore be multidisciplinary. It would be of major importance for statisticians to be on board here to contribute their various potential strengths, such as wealth of methods, experience in various applications, comprehensive information infrastructure, long time series, solidity and trust.

In reaction to this statement, I am happy to announce that yesterday (May 13th) the CCSA (The Committee for the Coordination of Statistical Activities) - 36 international organisations came together and published a special report "How COVID-19 is changing the world: A statistical perspective" to try and address this exact issue. You can find this report at:

For those unfamiliar with the CCSA, it is comprised of international and supranational organizations, whose mandate includes the provision of international official statistics in the context of the Principles Governing International Statistical Activities and which have a permanent embedded statistical service in their organization and regular contacts with countries. The mandate of the CCSA is to ensure the efficient functioning of the international statistical system; develop common standards, platforms and
methodologies; provide inter-institutional support; outreach; and advocacy for high quality official statistics. More information can be found on the CCSA webpage: