Eurostat Annual Conference – Modern Statistics for a Modern Society
Luxembourg, 7 December 2007
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to welcome you to the 2007 Eurostat Annual Conference and to thank all the speakers and participants for being here and making this event a success. I would also like to thank Marie Bohata, Hervé Carré and Eurostat for their hard work in organising this highly relevant conference on how statistics can reflect our modern society.
We live in a world of rapid change – change that is deeper, faster and broader than we could have imagined only a decade ago. The way we live, the way we work, even the way we relate to one another is in a state of transition.
Statistics play a crucial role in understanding our society. They help us to capture the transformations taking place, to grasp their implications and develop an effective response. Reliable statistics can help us negotiate the unchartered waters of modernity.
But in turn, we have to make sure that the statistical tools that we use are up to date with modern society. They need to keep abreast of the latest developments, be relevant and sufficient to meet the demands of the world we live in today.
Many of the contributions and discussions of this conference will explore in detail how statistics must be shaped to reflect a modern society. So let me frame these more technical sessions by giving you some considerations from a political point of view on how society is developing in the 21st century and the implications this will have for our statistical systems.
An information society
The end of last century and the beginning of this century have been marked by a very rapid and overwhelming shift to an age of information. Until recently, information about the world has been scarce and hard to come by. Today, new technology means that a new piece of data is produced every time we make a purchase in a shop, a survey is carried out, or a disease is diagnosed. And many new activities and services made possible by new technology are now subject to measurement.
Innovations in media and communication, such as the internet, allow this information to be disseminated into every home. Today not just specialists but anybody can access information about almost any subject matter. In short, we live in an ever more complex, increasingly numerate, society.
Of course, navigating this sea of data raises challenges. Citizens, as well as policy makers, need to be able to interpret the deluge of information that confronts them every day. And of course, the risk of statistics being exploited as a tool for misinformation or manipulation should not be ignored.
Fortunately our unprecedented access to numerical data means that we have become increasingly adept at handling numbers. Today’s European citizens are well informed and their demand for ever more precise and accurate statistical information is growing.
A political tool
Political issues are increasingly cast into, and perceived through, numerical structures. And not just at the level of public debate. Policy decisions too are strongly evidence based. Take a close look and you will see that many policy choices are influenced and shaped by comparisons and rankings, by scoreboards and control panels, by scenarios and model based simulations and other such statistical tools.
And once decisions have been taken, statistics are used to monitor their implementation, and evaluate policy performance. In modern society, politicians are probably more accountable than ever, and therefore statistics have acquired a critical role in our democracies.
Given that statistics have evolved from being an information tool to play a key part in the political process itself, this places increased scrutiny on their reliability and quality. Today, ensuring the quality of our statistical data has become paramount. Accurate, reliable and timely statistics underpin effective policy making.
Modern society is also characterised by the growing involvement of civil society in public decision making. Innumerable NGOs as well as advocacy, lobby and stakeholder groups can now make their voices heard much more easily. Public and private decision makers are increasing linked through vast participative networks.
The emergence of participative governance gives added incentive to improve the quality of statistics for all sorts of users and purposes. As the access to statistics becomes easier, we will have to continue improving readability and transparency. This will further encourage civil society to engage in public decision making.
These networks of stakeholders in civil society extend worldwide in a context where the boundary between public and private, national and global is becoming ever more blurred. They are a characteristic of a modern European society that is outward looking and open to the rest of the world as never before. And I don’t mean just economically open via trade and finance, but also socially, culturally and intellectually open.
Globalisation has made the world smaller and highly interconnected. We now take a direct interest in global developments and we cannot afford to ignore events that take place in other parts of the world.
This inter-dependence broadens the scope for cross-border policy coordination and increases the demand for international comparisons in statistics. Of course, a lot has been achieved in terms of statistical comparability and cooperation in the European context in the last decades. But we now need to broaden the scope of this work to satisfactorily cover new countries and issues.
Being better informed and more aware of the world around us, we have also learnt that we, as a society, are exposed to risks. A new concern with measuring and managing these risks has evolved spanning a whole spectrum of issues from social inequality, to crime, from energy and climate change to population ageing.
What links many of these issues is the need to ensure that our way of life is sustainable in the long term. Sustainability is a very modern concern, one which emerges in various policy areas.
For example, the knowledge that population ageing will place an enormous strain on our healthcare and pension systems and cut the ratio of worker to retiree by half has helped to push budgetary consolidation and structural reform to the top of the EU policy agenda.
The increasing prominence of this issue has been helped by extensive work on the impact that ageing will have on public finances and the economy, with long-term projections showing the consequences for government debt, public expenditure and productivity. These statistics have not only shown us the scale of the challenge we now face, they have helped communicate the urgency of action to Member States, stakeholders and citizens.
In this context, modern society demands high quality and accurate statistics to measure, predict and manage the challenges of today and tomorrow. It also requires new forms of statistical indicators.
For example, for more than 70 years GDP has been the foremost indicator involved in economic decision making. But with social and environmental concerns coming to the fore, the calls for indicators that will complement GDP by measuring the developments that this measure brushes over, such as individual welfare, environmental damage and social inequality are growing louder.
We are beginning to make headway in this respect. Eurostat has developed structural indicators covering domains like employment, research and social cohesion that measure our progress towards the goals of the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs. We are developing indicators to monitor the EU’s Sustainable Development Strategy, our approach to reconciling economic development, social cohesion and protection of the environment. We are also working on developing an equivalent to the European system of National Accounts in the field of environmental issues. However, we still have a long way to go until we have established comprehensive and universally accepted indicators to measure wellbeing.
A service economy
Finally, a modern society means economic transformation. The European economy is now driven much more by services than by manufacturing, more by knowledge than by production and increasingly, more by finance than by trade in manufacturing. However, although services are now the dominant force in the EU economy, accounting for 70% of GDP, this is not mirrored by the statistical information that we have available, which is still much stronger in the manufacturing sectors. Correcting this deficiency will help us develop economic policies to reinforce our competitiveness in the modern, global economy.
I have sketched an outline of modern society and highlighted the demands that rapid change is making on our statistics. Of course, rising to these new challenges requires an effective system of governance that will not only guarantee that data is of a high quality, accurate and relevant but that will also ensure its credibility.
Both the newly created European Statistics Governance Advisory Body and the European Statistics Code of Practice are important in this respect. The latter, adopted in 2005, lays down 15 principles dealing with process and product quality of statistics based on international and European quality standards, guidelines and good practices. The 15 principles focus on enhancing the independence, integrity and accountability of national and Community authorities. This code is self regulatory: each member state has completed a self-assessment questionnaire on its implementation which is complemented by a round of peer reviews. For the sake of transparency, these results are posted on Eurostat’s web site.
In this way, the governance structure better ensures that EU statistics are independent and that the trust of EU citizens in these statistics is secured.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me conclude with one final consideration. I have shown how statistics in the 21st century need to keep up with the rapid changes and new challenges of the modern era.
But producing the right data is only one side of the story. Statistics do not speak for themselves. As Einstein said, ‘information is not knowledge’. Statisticians have to explain numerical data, put it into context and show its limits in order to make it more transparent and easier to use for everybody.
Objective and high quality communication to the general public on statistics is essential. Only then can official statistics truly fulfil their function as a public good and a powerful tool in a modern democracy.
Thank you for your attention.