Interview Olav Ljones

Official Statistics: Colored houses on black and white lake and mountains in Bergen Norway


Official Statistics IAOS former president Olav Ljones

My advice is to give priority to do a better job for what we know. One example where we haven't succeeded is when it comes to sustainability. That's a key concept going forward

By Katherine M. Condon, Ph.D., Interview Editor - SJIAOS

Mr. Olav Ljones served as President of the International Association for Official Statistics (IAOS) between 2007 and 2009.  He began his career and interest in official statistics at Statistics Norway, after obtaining a Master degree in Economics at the University of Oslo.  He started as a Research Fellow and moved through the ranks to serve as the Deputy Director General at Statistics Norway between 2008 and 2015, and between 2015 and 2016, he served as Deputy Director, International Relations before his retirement in 2016. 

Olav has been active in several international projects.  An important goal for these projects has been to improve the international standards and principles. He recommends processes with active involvement of experts both from International organizations and national statistical offices has been fruitful. If such processes end up with better international comparable statistics it is beneficial for the international activities but it should not be forgotten that international comparability give national official statistics value added. The two major project he comments are on energy statistics and refugee statistics.  In this interview we talked about many of the challenges facing national statistical offices with regard to sustainability, as well as modernization.  Further, as you will read in this interview the process of modernization and developing of the strategies and ideas to meet these challenges had already been happening at Statistics Norway before he arrived at Statistics Norway.  Although this process is still going on, Olav was active in the preparations that allowed Statistics Norway to conduct the first 100% register-based census in 2011.  While he has retired from Statistics Norway, he still keeps involved in the field of official statistics by publishing and participating in various international activities.

This interview was conducted via Skype with Olav Ljones by Katherine Condon on August 3, 2018.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much for allowing us to interview you.  Let us start at the very beginning and go back to your childhood.  What was it like growing up in your country?

It was a happy experience. My father was a professor at the Norwegian Agriculture University.  So, I grew up at the University, which was about 40 kilometers outside the municipal Oslo.

It was in the countryside. It was academic and it was also practical, a lot of skilled talented people from all over Norway came to study or work as university staff with a variety of backgrounds, and from many regions of Norway. So, it gave me a respect for academia combined with rural values and also the value   of practical usefulness.

The town where I grew up was one of the few, and it was a rather small municipality. The university campus to some extent dominated the town. We had lots of good friends.

INTERVIEWER: What was your education like before university?

I had the standard Norwegian education, but there may be some translation problems in terms of what is “standard.” Standard progression in education in Norway is to go from primary school, and then afterwards to high school and then college and finally on to the university.

[With regard to my interests and abilities], I-think I was not very talented but rather good in mathematics and had an interest in society.  So, I found it quite natural to start studying Economics.

I think that in Norway at that time, Economics was a rather high prestige subject area to study. The Institute in Oslo already had a high reputation at the time when I started in 1965. 

At that time, very few students continued on, as there was no national program for a Ph.D. [to follow a Master’s degree like in the United States. 

INTERVIEWER: Remembering back to when you were completing your education, what did you hope to accomplish and what were your aspirations in your professional life?

I think I chose to come to Statistics Norway instead of trying to continue at the university because I saw how Statistics Norway worked, that is, building these models et cetera was fully dependent on teamwork.  It was also important that it was obvious that Statistics Norway had high emphasis on being policy relevant. And still combined high professional standards and an academic approach with practical purpose and practical implementation.  I found it easy to-choose a career at Statistics Norway.

INTERVIEWER: You began your professional career as a Research Fellow at Statistics Norway and rose through the ranks to become Deputy Director General, as well as other high-level management positions.  What did you see as your greatest satisfaction?  Is there any one project while you were at Statistics Norway that you feel you will be able to look back on and say that it was your favorite project?  Could you give a little bit of background of the history of statistics in Norway?

Can I mention more than one example?


I think again, the teamwork in modernizing some of the tax benefit models that they were operating in the research department. That is about 25 years ago, but we developed very user-friendly models for use both by the Ministry of Finance and also for the political opposition in the Parliament. 

And I found that the team work, back in those years when we had user-meetings with the Ministry of Finance, that is the government, but also to guarantee that the political opposition in the Parliament also had access to the same models and prepared documents for the, let's say, the financial offices of Parliament.

So, I think that is an example where the statistics is said to be or that so much of statistics is serving not only those in the government, but also serving with the same model structure, the opposition and other groups in society.

I think that is also a reason that I was in the Research Department but that experience has also followed me when I left the Research Department in 1994 to become a Deputy Director, head of Economic Statistics at Statistics Norway.

I will also mention that we after working with a simple labor force projection model as a simple appendix to a traditional population projection model  we  extended this model  by  the use of a technique for micro simulation. The rich access to data using a dataset extracted from the register archives in Norway was a necessity. We then could estimate the transition probabilities covering, childbirth, family formation, education activities and labor force participation. In the model we included also, health, and disability and mortality. So this model was very relevant for projections of the size and composition of the labor force.  It covers also gender, and the number of children in the family. So, it is a very rich model for projections of the labor force. The model was soon extended to include wages and income and then also taxes paid and pensions received.  The model was an intensively used tool for the analysis of ageing of population and pension reforms in Norway.

Today new and better models are used but I look back to this process with pleasure. When I see that the results can be used for political debates I am greatly satisfied.

When I look back to my career from 1994 as head of department for economic statistics there are several milestones I look back to with great satisfaction. One is the adaptation of the Norwegian official statistics to EU standards.  I will also mention that we further developed environment statistics and included the computation of emission of green house gases in the statistical portfolio, Official statistics is not only to improve output but also to establish routines for efficient data collection. One fascinating example is the use of bar code data bases in retail sector to collect in an extremely efficient manner price data for the Consumer price index.

I cannot leave my list of success memories without mentioning the system we established for statistics on municipal activities. Municipal sector in Norway has a wide responsibility for welfare sectors in addition to area planning, roads, water and sewage. Traditionally data was before our project collected in an uncoordinated manner sector by sector and published in paper publications in an uncoordinated process.  To be short the vision was to collect all data from municipalities electronically and coordinated and then based on coordinated tabulations put all statistical results on internet after one month and with revised and improved results after 5 months. The project was started late 1990s and was in functioning from 2003. It is still a success story but of course improved and revised and still with some challenges.

This is a preview of an interview conducted for and published in the Statistical Journal of the IAOS. The full interview can be read here.

The views and opinions expressed in the conversation are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Statistical Journal of the International Association for Official Statistics nor IOS Press.