The fu­ture of sta­tis­tics

Malta Independent - - DE­BATE & ANAL­Y­SIS - Reuben Fenech Reuben Fenech is the Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of the National Sta­tis­tics Of­fice, Malta

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

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