The events of the last month in Egypt and the Middle East have had me thinking some about the forces that can drive change. One of strange parts of about the space that I occupy, not being in a stat agency and not being an academic, is I that get an outsider’s perspective of what is happening within and across these institutions. This is particularly helpful in watching how change happens within these organizations. I wanted to reflect a bit on some observations about the global statistical system, specifically the informal international network of governmental statistical offices and officials that produce the data which we rely upon to understand our economies, our people, and all aspects of our world.
I don’t know what I’d call these musings but I think when looked at together there are some truths here that can be helpful in particular to academics who might over the course of their careers only have an opportunity to work with statistical agencies once or twice. I have talked to a lot of academics (and others) who might want to see improvements in certain data, release of certain data, coordinated collection of surveys, or the like. Most academics are befuddled by national statistical offices and their bureaucratic ways. There is little academic training given to understanding project management, partner coordination, etc. – all things which are critical to getting data collected, produced, etc. Consider this a short primer but also a larger consideration about how the system informally operates.
While we would like to pretend that all countries are playing with an identical deck of power and influence in national statistics, the reality is that three players wield unusual power and influence on the direction of the global statistical system. Innovative measurements and production of new and meaningful series by a relatively small country, say Chile or Belarus, are very unlikely to be replicated or noticed internationally without the attention or interest of one of the three trump statistical players. Recognizing where and how power centers are shifting in the statistical community is important for those of us trying to drive improvements in data and for researchers attempting to see cross-country studies replicated.
The Fading Trump
The first trump that I recognized in my job was the United States. Simply put, in the production of innovation and entrepreneurship data, if equivalent data is not produced on the United States (and if people don’t believe the results), any international comparison is doomed. As a Foundation whose main focus is production of data on these topics in the U.S., we were often approached about funding or supporting U.S. replications of data series and research. While this was a particularly powerful position for the U.S. in the 2000s, post-crisis it seems this trump has diminished. Now, while most efforts would like to have the U.S.’s involvement, countries have tended to have more interest in more timely and meaningful national-level data, with much less importance given to comparing their results to the U.S. benchmark. The U.S. has never fully taken advantage of its potential power as a statistical leader, too often relinquishing involvement in international efforts to gather improved data. Driving the global conversation was a space the Canadians really saw outsized-power with until recently with the gutting of many of their statistics programs.
The Suit Bigger than All the Others
The quiet behemoth of internationally comparable statistics is Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office. While they have wielded some power since their establishment, my own experience is that just as the European Union’s powers have broadened in policy and other rights, Eurostat’s power to drive the international statistical conversation has increased. In our own experience, the signing-on of Eurostat to the Entrepreneurship Indicators project at the OECD, which we funded, was a significant milestone in driving internationally-replicative data. With the ability to drive statistics coming from 27 member countries, Eurostat is both blessed and cursed. The blessings in terms of potential replicants are easy to see but the curses are a bit more hidden. One significant curse is the limited ability of Eurostat to drive implementations which ALL member countries don’t agree to. Hence, the sovereignty of data production remains at the state-level and can sometimes lead to the dumbing down of mandatory statistics. A lack of microdata access and a mandate that is too inwardly focused have limited their global power.
The Rising Trump
While no expert would currently identify China as a global statistical leader, from what I see in the academic world I have no doubt its power in global statistics is also rising. While researchers doing cross-country studies of entrepreneurship and innovation are a limited bunch, it feels as if almost all the proposals I see for collections in this area involve China and X. And with the OECD’s increased focus on non-member economies, it is certainly trying to get China and other BRIC national statistical offices to join the global conversation. So far, this seems about the only potential international source of power that China has not systematically tried to take advantage of in its development efforts. From my understanding and time living/traveling there it would seem there is still some distrust of official statistics and too much information about the activities within the country. India is a country that has a huge history of measurement and record keeping but still lacks many of the basic infrastructures for modernization.