The future of statistics
a sufficiently timely and granular manner for them to be increasingly more relevant. This must be achieved without compromising quality. Many an enterprise has demonstrated how consumers readily give value to quality and how they give their loyalty to a brand when it consistently delivers the goods.
NSIs generally enjoy a solid reputation and are perceived as upholding elevated levels of quality. They have a very clear mission in providing the platform for evidence-based decision-making at all levels of society by delivering a product range backed by a carefully assembled production process. They depend on numerous suppliers of data without which the production would stall. They have an equally extensive portfolio of customers to engage, not least to fend off increasing competition. It seems clear, therefore, that the scenario in which NSIs operate is not altogether different from that of any enterprise. Surely, the basic principles of business administration are as equally applicable to NSIs as to any other enterprise.
So what is the competitive edge of NSIs? What chronic weaknesses do they suffer from? What opportunities lie ahead and how should they keep the various threats at bay?
Factually, NSIs do hold a unique position in terms of accessibility to information that sheds light on salient aspects of society. Whether that information is actually made available to NSIs, and what level of quality it has, is a different matter. Being part of the wider public sector, an NSI is, of course, in a privileged position. Such a position, however, comes with ample expectation that what comes from the public needs to be returned to the public in the formats and with the timeliness and accuracy that attest to its utility. This is a concept that underlies statistics as a public good.
Generally operating independently from, but supported by, central governments, NSIs are in a strong position to succeed in their quest. Their stable financial backing ensures their output is not susceptible to drastic fluctuations driven by external factors. Another strength lies in the size of their technical staff complement and the flow of new graduates receiving thorough on-the-job training by working alongside seasoned statisticians.
On the downside, NSIs are likely to be constrained by bureaucratic processes that hamper agility in the areas of recruitment, procurement and investment, to mention but a few. A critical operational shortfall hides within remuneration packages that are often enough ill-fit to avert the attrition of talented staff. Conversely, low turnover within worker streams traditionally relishing the job security that is in the public sector, impinges on the management’s ability to motivate its people and maintain adequate levels of productivity. The relatively low investment in areas crucial to fostering innovation – typically process engineering, IT infrastructure, product development, customer insight and digitalisation – could well have been one of the major weaknesses that has threatened the importance of NSIs and may even lead to it ebbing away.
This threat is not in the realm of fiction. To various extents, NSIs need change or else they should be ready to face sliding into irrelevance. There is enough generation of information and enough strong players out there that are ready to syphon off from NSIs their raison d’être.
Having said that, there are several angles which give cause to rejoice. Indeed, NSIs have enough significant opportunities which, if embraced, would see them consolidate their position as a pillar of society in helping policymakers, business leaders and families make better informed decisions and would see them play a major part in achieving good governance, ethical business practices and social cohesion.
The National Statistics Office of Malta (NSO) shares many similarities with its European counterparts. There are reasons for a positive outlook, given that the European Statistical System (ESS) is very active in fostering collaboration to the extent that it has established a common vision with 2020 as a target date for completion. Malta, together with other countries, is active in the various projects that form part of the ESS Vision 2020, which allows for development in such areas as communication and dissemination of statistics, access to administrative sources of data, and data validation processes.
There is one opportunity, however, for the NSO that merits being singled out. Apprised of its hard-earned solid reputation, the NSO is at a vantage point for mobilising statistics and adding real value to them, steering them away from smokescreens derived from ignorance, prejudice and spin. Good-quality and timely statistics discourage the misuse of numbers in ways that mislead either deliberately or inadvertently. Diffused statistical literacy is a means through which citizens can hold accountable those in positions of authority in public, political and business administration.
To cement its role as a perpetrator of prosperity, the NSO must first strengthen itself. Extensive investment in IT infrastructure and process re-engineering, together with added focus on human resource development, the deployment of comprehensive risk and quality management frameworks and a more user-driven approach to communicating statistics, are a few of the initiatives on which the organisation is pivoting.
The NSO is also in the forefront when it comes to product development. Working in tandem with expert groups to foster ideas in domains where its statistical output can add most value to society, the NSO has the ongoing mission to broaden its audience. It will be proactively reaching out to new user groups with the aim of disseminating the concept and practice of statistical literacy. Renewed momentum from this and similar initiatives should go some way towards encouraging research and development in areas that are still handicapped by a lack of good-quality statistics.
In the coming weeks, the NSO will – for the first time – be producing a number of publications that will set the trend. A thematic publication focusing on social protection will shed light on the way social benefits are paid and where those receiving them are concentrated. This will be done using visualisation tools that are intended to engage a wider range of users. In another, subsequent, publication, the NSO will be looking into the demographic and economic profile of Shift Employment in Malta. This will also be a first.
Trends in Malta will be published by the end of the year and will include the main statistics collated by the NSO in 2016. It will look at Maltese society from both the economic and the social dimension. Early next year, and building on the success of the latest published Gozo in Figures, the NSO will be providing more in-depth regional statistics in a collection entitled Regional Yearbook.
The way the NSO communicates is evolving to reflect the way our users want to receive information. A number of key news releases are in the process of being revamped with the aim of making them more meaningful and easier to digest. The use of Twitter to highlight various aspects recorded in our daily releases is also a step in that direction.
The NSO has launched its first interactive online product, enabling population comparisons between different localities and regions in the Maltese Islands. A new product on our website is also intended to highlight the salient points of publications, making it easier for users to cover.
Seminars involving different audiences – ranging from people working in the media and public relations to technical users – were delivered to foster statistical literacy and increase awareness of the statistical products available. The NSO will be hosting an international conference in Malta on Dissemination of Official statistics as Linked Open Data between 19 and 21 January 2017. Delegates from many countries are expected to attend and discuss ways to develop more innovative means of providing statistics. This will also kick-start the NSO’s experience to lead the Council of the European Union Working Party on Statistics, as part of Malta’s Presidency commitments between January and June 2017.
NSIs do hold a unique position in terms of accessibility to information that sheds light on salient aspects of society. Whether that information is actually made available to NSIs, and what level of quality it has, is a different matter