Director General of Statistics Finland Marjo Bruun has chaired the Conference of European Statisticians (CES), UNECE’s statistical body, since 2016. As she retires from Statistics Finland at the end of this month, she reflects on how leading this international statistical work has broadened her perspective of the global situation and of Finland's role.
“The activities of CES show clearly how statistics are produced in different ways by different countries, yet all with the same ultimate goals of informing society. For example, the registers on which statistics are compiled are accepted without question in Finland where we have had them for a long time, but this is not the case all over the world; many countries don’t have such registers.”
Participation in the work of the CES benefits everyone involved. Finland has brought to the table its statistical expertise in many areas, and at the same time, Finns' own competence has grown in cooperation with others. Statistical offices everywhere are in the midst of efforts to modernize and to develop new methods; by working together across the region all countries can share what they have to offer and at the same time benefit from the comparative advantages of others.
“One of my greatest achievements in chairing the CES is that it has become more interactive and participatory. With a less formal setting, all the countries that take part in the annual sessions of the CES feel free to speak up and share their ideas.”
The changing place of official statistics in society
Much has changed over the course of the ten years that Ms Bruun has been following the developments of international work in official statistics. The massive increase in the amount of information created in society induces official statistics producers to reflect constantly on their work and to keep on reconsidering what they do – are we answering the needs of governments, academics and the general public? How can we keep evolving to do better?
“In leading the international statistical community through CES I have always tried to look forward; to consider the needs of the society around us and to find possibilities for cooperation with others. There are many actors producing and using information in society, which drives us to keep revisiting key questions about what statistics we produce and how we produce them, so we can maintain our competitive edge.”
The strength of official statistics rests in careful basic statistical work and adherence to our core principles that countries developed and agreed upon together. The standards and methods agreed on through international cooperation, such as through the forum of CES, create a framework that permits comparisons of figures over time and between different countries.
“The world is full of data, but unfortunately many of the data available to the public are questionable to say the least. Many figures that you can find easily online have no information about where they come from, what year they refer to or how they were calculated. Official statistics, in contrast, have to meet carefully-defined quality standards and use definitions and methods that have been agreed upon internationally.”
Looking to the future
Statistical authorities are under constant pressure as accurate and reliable information is required faster than ever before. The Covid-19 crisis has heightened this double-headed demand for accuracy and speed. Meanwhile, people’s willingness to respond to surveys continues to drop, making data collection a common global challenge. These are two of the greatest tests for future work in official statistics.
So what else does the future hold for official statistics? Where should the next CES chair look to lead the international statistical community in the coming years?
“One of the areas in greatest need of international collaboration is data integration. Data are collected from many sources and it should be possible to use them better in statistical production. Ideally, we would not have to ask people how they are doing, but we would be able to identify it from information gathered from elsewhere. As an individual area, I would also like to highlight information related to the environment and climate, which is a very large and challenging arena where official statistics can play a greater role.”
Marjo Bruun will retire after nearly nine years as Director General of Statistics Finland. A new chair for the Conference of European Statisticians will be elected in June when the conference holds its 69th Plenary session.