No one would even think of driving a car without a dashboard that displays crucial functions such as speed, fuel gauge or engine temperature. Equally essential are official statistics, which provide guidelines for good governance and should be available to citizens.
Hervé Conan is Director of Operations and Isabelle Valot is Director of the Economic and Financial Governance Department of Expertise France, the French agency for international technical expertise.
How can we talk about an economy without knowing its growth rate; how can we support job creation without knowing who is seeking work and in which sector; how can we develop a fair retirement policy without reliable population projections; how can we reduce inequalities if we are not measuring their nature and extent?
Quality statistics, a prerequisite for democratic dialogue
The availability of objective and high-quality statistical information is necessary to know the state of society and establish a real debate between all actors, including decision-makers and governments, economic and social forces, the media and the population as a whole.
In countries where civil society is active and data is easily accessible, the opinions of citizens are sought on the ground or through digital tools. This fuels public debate on major issues, such as the energy transition, taxation and public expenditure, organisation of the state and public services.
Too much data, not enough statistics
Feeding the debate with objective and relevant data is essential for the comparison between the impact of decisions, the monitoring of their effects, their analysis and use in public policy.
However, in some cases, the myriad of information can cause confusion among its users, particularly when it is disseminated without proper indication of collecting methods and sources.
In some cases, data may even be controlled, difficult to access or even used for partisan purposes. Data that is accessible to everyone (so-called ‘open data’), is a virtue of the state and its institutions’ transparency and allows a country’s citizens and stakeholders to better grasp information.
The wealth of information, as well as its scarcity, therefore hides an important obstacle: How much confidence can we place in this large amount of data?
It is often said that there is too much ‘data’ but not enough ‘statistics’. By that, we mean that official statistics are based on internationally accepted principles and methods, the application of which is closely monitored. This gives an objective value to official statistics.
Developing reliable data
Some questions are easy to understand: it is relatively easy, for instance, to conceptualise an inflation rate and to put in place the statistical tools needed to calculate such a rate.
Others require an initial effort to define such a rate, to then elaborate a more complex statistical apparatus. This is the case when measuring the objectives of sustainable development or inequality, which are both complex to understand.
Do we want to talk about wage inequalities between sectors of activity and between categories of profession? Or about inequalities related to living conditions more generally, or inequalities between countries or regions?
With every question corresponding to a statistical tool, the amount of well-trained professionals and financial resources can sometimes become substantial.
International cooperation in the field of statistics is therefore necessary, and it is in this sense that Expertise France works alongside European actors, such as Eurostat and the various statistical institutes of EU member states.
Statistical cooperation projects implemented by Expertise France with national or regional statistical institutes are aimed to improve the quality of data. This is necessary to inform policy choices, contribute to good governance, harmonise statistical methodologies with European and international norms and standards, as well as to improve data consistency in partner countries to promote exchanges between peers on comparable data.
The media’s role
Such support should not be considered as being solely technical, as it is part of a broader framework of cooperation aimed at supporting constructive democratic debate because statistics are a free and useful good that benefits society as a whole, including the private sector, the public sector and all citizens.
To do this, statistics need to be presented in an understandable form. Because even if statistical information is reliable, accessible and relevant, its use is not guaranteed: there are many users and their consumption patterns vary and evolve rapidly.
Social media, in particular, has changed consumer behaviour in relation to information, a challenge that public statistics must be prepared to meet. Where consumers demand immediacy, the complexity of collection and processing operations that take time to produce results need to be managed.
Partnerships and exchanges must be developed between statisticians and their users in order to better explain what is behind these figures to ensure they are better made use of.
To this end, the media are essential partners of statisticians because they relay information. Here too, international cooperation can facilitate dialogue by bringing… statisticians and journalists closer together.
Thus, the European MEDSTAT IV* project for cooperation between Mediterranean countries has made it possible to develop a joint training programme called Communication4Statistics (C4S), as well as to launch other initiatives aimed at strengthening capacities and processes in the field of data visualisation or relating to the production of a guide on the creation of infographics.
Supporting cooperation with regard to official statistics therefore means supporting development and progress towards more relevant public policies.