Strong legal frameworks lie at heart of trustworthy, reliable official statistics

When we read or hear official figures, such as the rate of inflation, the level of unemployment or the size of our country’s population, we expect to be able to trust in the accuracy of these figures. We want to be able to use them with confidence to inform our decisions.

We also expect the producers of these statistics to treat our information with the utmost care-if we complete a survey, or if information about us, our families or our businesses is processed to produce official statistics, we want to be able to trust that it’s done in a way that protects our identity and safeguards our privacy. We need to have faith that our information will not be used for the wrong reasons, nor fall into the wrong hands.

Both of these kinds of trust-trust in the figures and trust in the treatment of data-are essential aspects of official statistics. For such trust to exist we need laws that protect how data are obtained, stored, processed, used and disseminated. Not only this, but these laws need to be clear and transparent so that people can understand how they are being protected. So important is this requirement that it is one of the ten Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, designed to encapsulate the core features that guide and define official statistics.

UNECE’s Conference of European Statisticians (CES) supports countries in developing their statistical laws, through the Generic Law on Official Statistics (2016) and the Guidance on Modernizing Statistical Legislation (2019). As new data sources and new ways of producing statistics become increasingly mainstream, the nature of these statistical laws and agreements must also evolve. A traditional Statistics Act stipulating the processes for conducting surveys and censuses is no longer sufficient. Modern statistical systems are unleashing the potential of all sorts of data sources, from satellite imagery to patterns of social media usage, from electricity consumption to mobile phone positioning data. The laws and regulations and hence also the guidance provided by CES therefore needs to keep evolving.

With this in mind, the UNECE/EFTA Expert Meeting on Modernizing Statistical Legislation identified key areas where this development needs to focus: the rules governing access to privately-held data; data ethics; and data governance and stewardship.

Many of the data sources in modern statistical systems are held privately-not gathered through official surveys nor even held in government administrative records, but collected and owned by private companies, such as internet service providers, mobile telephone operators, supermarkets and energy suppliers. NSOs can’t just take this information and use it to produce statistics. There are rules in place to govern what they can access and how, and what they may do with the information once accessed. Legislation around privately-held data isn’t only about limiting access, but also about safeguarding it to ensure that NSOs can work efficiently. Why should the public be expected to complete many surveys, when that same information is already held by others? A good legal framework helps NSOs to maximize their use of these existing sources without having to burden respondents with requests for information that others already hold. It also helps mitigate against unexpected shocks, such as a private company suddenly starting to charge for access to data that previously was provided free of charge, or changing the nature of the data it provides so that statistics would not be comparable over time.

The CES guidance on statistical legislation was initially developed for the countries of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, but in just five years it has been so influential that it is rapidly becoming a global standard. Regional adaptations of the UNECE region’s generic law have been developed for Latin America and the Arab countries, and parts of it have been incorporated into the global United Nations Handbook on Management and Organization of National Statistical Systems. As of November 2021, at least 24 countries from all over the world have revised their statistical legislation based on these guides, including countries in Africa-Benin, Ethiopia and the Seychelles-and in Asia beyond the UNECE region, such as the Maldives. A number of others plan to revise their laws in the coming years.

The CES model was used in Armenia to shape the 2018 Law on Official Statistics, helping to define the scope, concretize the coordination mechanisms and formulate rules around accessing administrative data, disseminating statistics, and maintaining confidentiality. In Uzbekistan, a comprehensive new law on official statistics adopted in August 2021 responds directly to recommendations from UNECE and partners. The new law moves beyond the earlier approach that focused on the entities involved and their powers and duties, towards a holistic view of official statistics with legal articles covering the topics on which statistics are to be produced, quality, confidentiality and the publication of statistics.

As these new laws are put into practice, countries identify areas where more guidance or clarification is needed. Working alongside the United Nations Statistics Division and the many countries that have recently modernized their statistical laws, UNECE is gathering experiences to help shape future implementation guidelines and further adapt the model law and recommendations.

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