Evidence, in the form of data and statistics, is essential for formulating and monitoring policies. The term ‘evidence-based decision-making’, so commonly used that sometimes we don’t even think about it, makes this abundantly clear.
But we don’t just need any old evidence. If we are to be sure that we are making sound decisions, we need to be able to have faith in the soundness of the figures we rely on. We need to be able to trust that they are accurate, unbiased, correctly measuring the things they claim to measure. When we talk about something as simple and everyday as ‘GDP per capita’, we have to be able to trust that the size of the economy has been correctly defined and measured; and that the population has been accurately counted. We need to know that these figures are up-to-date, and that they are comparable with similar measures for other countries with which we might want to compare.
And how can we be so sure? This is where the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics come in.
The principles are a list of ten ways in which the business of official statistics guarantees this soundness and trustworthiness. The Fundamental Principles were first developed by the Conference of European Statisticians (CES), the highest statistical decision-making body in the UNECE region, 30 years ago, before being endorsed by the UN Statistical Commission and subsequently by ECOSOC.
I am immensely proud to say that these ‘ten commandments’ of official statistics, which became a General Assembly-endorsed global standard in 2014, were created right here in our region by a UNECE body.
So what’s so special about these Principles?
It’s not only about using the best possible, scientifically correct statistical methods—although of course this is one of the principles.
It’s also about giving assurances, protected by law, that the bodies producing the statistics are independent of government or of any other outside influence.
It’s about being open about the methods and sources used, so that anyone can check up on them and verify what they find.
It’s about safeguarding statistics from deliberate or accidental misuse, and publicly calling out instances of such misuse in order to tackle the rising tide of misinformation, ‘alternative facts’ and misinterpretation.
It’s about an ensuring that the entire industry of official statistics stays ahead of the curve when it comes to making use of new sources of data, new methods and technologies, ensuring efficiency and good use of taxpayers’ money.
Crucially, it’s about responding to the demands and needs of society, producing the necessary evidence on the kinds of things that people actually want and need to know about. This means keeping constant contact with all kinds of stakeholders, from government agencies to academics, from charities to schoolchildren, to find out and meet their needs, since official statistics are meant to serve and provide value to the whole of society. Statistical offices are constantly evolving to produce new and different kinds of statistics on emerging and politically important topics: social exclusion; gender differences in household decision-making, circular migration; new forms of employment such as platform work and the gig economy; and the social and economic impacts of climate change, to name just a few.
The principles ensure that all producers of official statistics, governed by a very simple and universally shared framework, are on the same page—enabling them to work together to develop and support the statistical standards that underpin trustworthy statistics.
The tenth principle—a call for international cooperation among all those involved in official statistics—is embodied in the work of CES.
On 20 June 2022, the most senior statisticians from some 80 countries, UN bodies and international organizations, will gather right here in Geneva for the 70th annual plenary session of CES.
As ever, they will have lots of important decisions to make about the ways that essential facts about economies, societies and the environment are defined and measured. Among the hard work, they will also celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Fundamental Principles.
But they will not just celebrate the past 30 years. They will also be looking ahead to the future, restating their commitment to the framework that guides them in everything they do.
For those of us tasked with guiding and monitoring the progress of countries as they tackle the big challenges of our time—climate change, population ageing, sustainable urbanization, transitioning to a green economy—the value of comprehensive and trustworthy information cannot be overstated. I, like many others, depend every day on information produced under the umbrella of the Fundamental Principles to understand what is happening across the region as we all strive to attain the Sustainable Development Goals. It is for this reason that supporting our member States to improve their statistical systems is one of the central, powerful goals of the organization I lead.
I firmly believe, therefore, that the Fundamental Principles must and will remain at the heart of official statistics for another 30 years and beyond, as the shared foundation of an informed society.
I invite all countries to respect and uphold the Principles, and to strengthen and support official statistics producers to that they are empowered to fulfil the Principles to the maximum extent.