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The UN Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics: a suitable and current self regulatory instrument or an outdated ‘paper tiger’?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The 8th discussion focuses on the UN Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics (UNFPOS). See: https://unstats.un.org/unsd/dnss/gp/fundprinciples.aspx
 

The Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics [1] constitute since over 25 years the most important building block for quality and integrity of official statistics. This framework with its 10 principles offers worldwide, national and international statistical offices, by spelling out a set normative principles,  a reference frame that should guarantee the delivery of independent, authoritative, high quality statistics [2]. In almost all regions of the world and in a large majority of countries the national statistical systems have adopted these principles, translated them into the national language and also when necessary, adapted them to specific regional and local circumstances. It is for sure one of the most cited standards in official statistics, often referred to in publications, project descriptions, etc,.  In assessments of national and international statistical systems these principles and their subprincipals are commonly used as the framework for questioning the quality of the national and international statistical systems and formulating improvement suggestions.  A variety of systems to assess the level of compliance to the principles have been developed, varying from incidental assessments of one or two principles to periodic peer reviews that cover the full set. 

Recent updates, for example on new data sources and methodologies, seem to assure a relatively up to date state of currentness of these principles.  In Vol 37 nr 2 of the Statistical Journal of the IAOS, the most recent developments around the UNFPOS are described in the manuscript ‘Assessing compliance with the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics: A Maturity Model for Continuous Improvement’, reporting on complementing the Fundamental Principles  of Official Statistics with the assessment of their compliance by countries and regions based on a Maturity Model for Continuous Improvement .

In discussions between representatives of official statistics it is often propagated that an enormous progress has been made in implementing the principles compared to the initiation year 1994, in understanding the relevance of high quality statistics for decision and policy making. 
In 2014, almost 20 years after their initial version, the UNFPOS were formally endorsed by the UN General Assembly. On a positive note, this event (29 January 2014) marked the recognition of the UNFPOS on the highest possible UN level. The proud celebration of the adoption by the GA can also be seen as an illustration of the fact that the official statistics community considers this main framework for high quality statistics still as a suitable instrument. 

But is this satisfaction and optimism justified?

It has taken rather a long time from the launch of the initial version in 1994 to the formal adoption in 2014. The principles were developed at the moment in time when, 5 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, many formerly Soviet type of statistics and governments were in a period of transition to their new place in western-type democratic societies. However, compared to 1994, in 2014 and even more in 2021 the world looks very different with respect to this role of types of governments and institutional environments of official statistics and also from the perspective of the type and roles of the stakeholders involved in statistics as used by policy makers. Over all these years only one real update of the principles took place. This update around 2014 however was limited to some methodological details and the recognition of the role of other institutions involved in producing and disseminating official statistics outside the traditional institutions and some wordings in the whereas.
 
Nevertheless, aged almost 30 years in 2021, one might assume that the principles have well settled beyond in official statistics institutions, also in the governmental bodies of (especially the democratic) societies that facilitate/and surround the system of official statistics. One might hope  that official statisticians succeeded in making national governments, national politics etc, understand the importance of the principles for high quality official statistics and consequently these institutions to be comparably active in striving and promoting for high quality via complying to these principles. 

However, at the time when the official recognition of the UNFPOS by the General Assembly in 2014 was celebrated, the discussions in side meetings of the UNSC and sessions at international conferences made clear that in a manifold of countries there are severe scratches in the compliance with the principles and that there are many weak spots on the global map with, though with a promise of implementation, in reality a simple neglecting of their existence. 
In summing up the events where breaches were noticed (in non-democratic but also in many democratic societies) against these principles, the understanding by governments of the principles seems to be rather low and selective. 

In recent years the official statistics society has regularly asked attention for this situation. In Vol 37, issue 1 of the Statistical Journal a set of manuscripts was published on the ‘Misuse of statistics’. Illustrated by the listing of examples in the manuscript by Andreas Georgiou in Volume 37/1 , the principles seem to have been consciously or unconsciously ignored. This list of examples on misuse, many going down to clear breaches of the principles, can be easily expanded with many cases that even do not reach the press but still are heavily impacting on the local, national and international scale the trustworthiness of official statistics.

It appears that for many of the in recent years emerged new stakeholders in official statistics, these principles are unknown and meaningless as well as in several countries the new political (governance) attitude does not include such rules and procedures. The conscious or unconscious breaches of one or more of the principles (especially principle 1 and 2), that are occurring seem to point to a system that one rather freely can use in support, to promote  suitable outcomes, but also as freely can discard without any penalty, in situations that conclusions or procedures are desired that better suit the politicians/decision makers. 

During the last two years, one might even get the impression that, caused by the chaos of the pandemic and the initial lack of clarity on correct an understandable indicators, the number of breaches, and consequently the gap between official statisticians and what policy makers think to make out of their statistics, has only increased.

In conclusion, the UNFPOS have been developed by the official statistical community as a self regulatory system. Over the years it has grown to a well recognized framework in most of the traditional world of official statistics. 

However, the context of the institutional framework of official statistics, the policy making environment of ministries and central government on a national scale, has changed. The context might have taken note of the principles but seems not to have committed, to act as the higher body in facilitating  the compliance to this principles, or to not value these principles. 

This leads to the question of the real strength of the UNFPOS? It surely has had power to guarantee high quality and trusted official statistics. But does it still have such power and to what extent? 
Or has it as a framework become obsolete due to the changed world, or at least, that it can, when it does not suit the decision maker, the main user of official statistics, be easily set aside; a ‘paper tiger’ ? 

The readers are invited to respond/comment on these questions

This leads to a few statements for this eight discussion. The objective of the 8th discussion is four fold:
•    to generate knowledge and experience with the implementation, and application of and the compliance with the Fundamental Principles;
•    to reflect on the usefulness of the principles; 
•    to re-establish the importance and find ways to broaden its impact and develop further outreach; 
•    to inquire especially for major improvements, both to the Fundamental Principles themselves as well as to the compliance and the enforcement of compliance to find ways to support the development and further outreach. 

The assumed rise in the growth in number and the seriousness of the breaches of the principles during the last 10 to 15 years, triggered by the situation in countries like Argentina, Greece and later the US and Canada, caused the Oxford Martin school to start an initiative for ‘Worldstat’  .Worldstat would signal breaches of the principles and publicly call for clarification from the governments and ask for respect for the UNFPOS.  There have been many references to this initiative but until now only a few  serious attempts to set it up. Organizational issues, on where to locate this initiative, the financing and the communication policies have restricted the progress. Even more serious, beyond oral support by representatives from national and international offices themselves, the idea does not seem to have grounded yet in policy making environments. 

The readers are invited to comment on the setting up of such a monitoring  and signaling tool as proposed by the ‘Worldstat’ initiative.

As such an initiative might be useful and needed there are some challenges to handle. One of these is that in most countries an established institutional statistical infrastructure has a location in the structure and culture of each individual country's administration. Due to the sovereignty of states over the governance of internal affairs, which includes public statistics, the possibilities of assessment or, if necessary, even of external influence by international institutions, which for their part are themselves also integrated into the respective administration, are limited.

The strongly emphasized autonomy and qualitative responsibility of public statistics creates castles that have their strengths in defense but have weaknesses when it comes to agility, innovation and change. Depending on the circumstances, a further tightening of the legal requirements may therefore have to be paid for with increasingly undesirable side effects and a loss of flexibility.

Based on this the audience is invited to reflect on possible other solutions beyond an initiative as world stat that would allow an effective articulation of concerns and warnings by professional statistical societies, be it on a national or international level. 

This discussion can be followed on www.officialstatistics.com
 

References

  1. Milicich, R., T. Dickinson, G. Van Halderen, T.Labor, H. Neven: Assessing compliance with the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics: A Maturity Model for Continuous Improvement. In SJIAOS Vol37/2.
  2. Georgiou, A.: The manipulation of official statistics as corruption and ways of understanding it, In SJIAOS Vol37/1
  3. https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/commission/WorldStat_Hosting_Criteria.pdf