The theme of professional independence in the production of official statistics is a subject that will never go away from the preoccupations of the international statistical community. It would seem that at any time somewhere in the world someone (usually a government) is trying to interfere against it. Last year, the attempt by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 US Population Census made the news in the US and worldwide, a decision more related to political considerations than to technical ones. In recent times, Argentina and Greece have also grabbed headlines around the world for altering figures in order to present a more favorable image of their economies, and a recent post on this blog raised awareness of a similar situation in Montenegro.
Examples like these, in which a government attempts to interfere in the work of National Statistical Offices to undermine data integrity by affecting any of the characteristics underlying integrity (truthfulness, quality, timeliness, accessibility and confidentiality) are not as uncommon as one may think – neither in the past nor in the present. It happens in all types of governments – in both despotic and democratic regimes, developing and developed nations. Why is it that the concept of professional independence of official statistical agencies faces great challenges in many parts of the world?
The origin of these conflicts is better understood if we look at use of statistics from legal and political science perspectives, and reflect on what is at stake behind what appears on the surface to be just technical or methodological issues.
The right to information is a basic right of all human beings because it is indispensable for the integral development of a person – their life, health, spiritual (cultural) and material (income) personal development, not to mention his/her liberties. In fact, all their basic needs (in other words their wellbeing) are at stake, and this is why it is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which all countries of the world agree to adhere – or at least pay lip service to (at the last count 193 nations).
The people who produce official statistics, and their government agencies, provide for the fulfillment of this right through information that can be expressed statistically according to the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics (approved by the United Nations).
It is a right that is universal in the sense that it pertains to all human beings irrespective of age (not only adults), nationality (not only local or national citizens), sex, social condition, and political borders (it is not exclusive for residents). It is not only a right for people who inhabit a territory at a certain time; investors – local or foreign, residents or not – have the same right to reliable and opportune statistics. World travelers while in transit above the skies have the right to receive accurate atmospheric information wherever they are. It is a foundational right of international organizations to receive quality information and it is also an obligation of governments to provide it.
If it so fundamental, why do particular governments so often attempt to interfere with it? All sorts of interests can be affected by the content of statistical information, but in the case of official statistics this most commonly happens by governments due to the important social and economic issues described using statistics. These naturally refer to areas attended to by government public policies, meaning the statistics are a vehicle for evaluations of the results of such policies. In particular, when the statistics indicate results are below the expectations set by, or on, governments, there is a temptation to control or alter the publication of information. In other cases, as in the example of the Trump administration, decisions about what statistics to collect or report can be used to promote political interests.
Intervention and pressure by governments can take many forms, and has taken many throughout history: from subtle suggestions, to downright orders, to the sometimes brutal force as when Stalin ordered the main functionaries in charge of the 1937 Population Census to be shot when he did not like the results.
You can find the stories mentioned above (and a few others involving Brazil, Canada, Ecuador and Puerto Rico) in Chapter 11 of the book I recently published under the title Why INEGI? The saga of a Mexican institution in search of the truth. The question of how to protect the professional independence of National Statistical Offices is discussed, as well as the efforts of Mexico in this respect (Chapter 8).
Official statistics work should be done by someone with a legal mandate which should include a protection to undertake the work according to the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, to protect the information against any interference based on considerations other than those that are strictly professional, in all stages of production and dissemination.
Independence defined in this way becomes the basis for the trust of everyone (also governments) towards the agency producing official statistics, and also explains why governments automatically incur a conflict of interest when they measure themselves without these safeguards.