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Politics and Policies of Statistical Independence


The issue of scientific and professional independence is a central concern of National Statistical Offices (NSOs). It pertains not only to scientific and methodological dimensions, such as definition of concepts, or design of surveys and questionnaires, but also to issues such as data release policies, definition of the overall statistical program, nomination or dismissal of the chief statistician, an NSO’s position within government architecture, as well as budgetary discretion. Independence is now an explicit feature of statistical acts and codes of practice in many countries and appears as a condition for securing the public’s trust. After describing the range of formal and informal means developed for protecting statistics independence in OECD countries, this chapter sketches three interpretations of the independence drive: the principal-agent, the independent expert and the technocrat-guardian models.


  • Statistics
  • Independence
  • Professional
  • Expertise

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Fig. 8.1


  1. 1.

    For an overview of this saga, see Langkjaer-Bain (2017).

  2. 2.

    In 2011, the Canadian government entrusted information technology infrastructure—e-mail delivery, data centre, and network services—of all 43 departments and agencies to a single agency called Shared Services Canada. According to Smith, this gives Shared Services “an effective veto over many of the statistical agency’s operations”. See Canadian Press (2016).

  3. 3.

    Daniel and Briones (2016).

  4. 4.

    Anderson and Fienberg (1999).

  5. 5.

    Lorraine Data (2009).

  6. 6.

    NSOs are also regularly designated in documents as national statistical institutes (NSIs); NSO is predominant in UN documents, while NSI is the standard European usage.

  7. 7.

    Sheikh (2011) provides an ideal-typical instance of this argument.

  8. 8.

    Desrosières (2008, 39–56). In this paper, we use “neo-liberalism” as an analytical rather than a polemical notion. In the neoliberal era, the top-down monitoring characteristic of the Keynesian era is replaced by a mode of management characterized in particular by coordination through emulation and competition, providing incentives rather than issuing commands, moving various decisions and responsibilities to agencies that are “at arm’s length”, etc. Examples are benchmarking, carbon exchange, subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles, contracts between governments and parastatal agencies, independent central banks.

  9. 9.

    Nivière (2014).

  10. 10.

    Desrosières (2014). Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is for instance a theoretically consistent concept typical of the Keynesian era; by contrast, the Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite index designed for ranking and can be seen as representative of neo-liberal statistics.

  11. 11.

    Bardet (2014), Capron (2005), Sinclair (2005), and Power (1997).

  12. 12.

    Savage (2011) and Lemoine (2013).

  13. 13.

    This is the case of many African countries. See Jerven (2013).

  14. 14.

    The role of statistics in authoritarian or totalitarian polities is an interesting topic in its own right, as historical work on Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany or Stalinist USSR has shown. It is, however, an altogether different issue from the one to be discussed here: conflicts between scientific ethos and political expediency sometimes arose in such settings, but subordination to political authority could in no way be questioned.

  15. 15.

    In the case of the United States, where the statistical system is largely decentralized (with some seventy agencies collecting and publishing data), attention will be restricted to the Census Bureau, which is by far the largest and, besides the census and population data in general, also deals with many economic, business, employment, and social statistics.

  16. 16.

    Berlin (1969).

  17. 17.

    Political interference may be defined, following American statistician Kenneth Prewitt, as “the attempt to gain partisan or regional advantage by shaping the production of a statistical product against the judgment of a non partisan and apolitical statistical agent. More specifically, (it includes): 1. The politically motivated suppression of an agency’s responsibility to offer its best judgment on how to most accurately and reliably measure a given phenomenon; 2. The politically motivated decision to prevent an agency from using state-of the-art science; 3. The politically motivated insistence on preclearance of a major statistical product that is based on state-of-the-art science.” (Prewitt 2010, 228)

  18. 18.

    In Canada, a revision of the Statistics Act occurred in 2017. Interestingly, the bill’s summary refers to reinforcing Statistics Canada’s “independence”, but the word does not reappear in any of the bill’s articles (compare Lord [2017] and House of Commons of Canada [2017]).

  19. 19.

    To take an extreme example, Canada’s former National Council of Statistics did not even have a website and did not publicize the name of its members, thus indicating an extremely low profile. The new Council designed by the recent consolidation of the 1985 Statistics Act has not yet been formed.

  20. 20.

  21. 21.

    The decision by the U.S. Bureau of the Census during World War II to provide census information in compliance with the executive order to round up inhabitants of Japanese origin is a case in point.

  22. 22.

    A few examples of the circulation of statistical elites: before being called to head ELSTAT, A. V. Georgiou was deputy chief of the IMF’s statistics department; Enrico Giovannini was the OECD’s chief statistician for eight years before becoming President of Italy’s Istituto nazionale di statistica (ISTAT) in 2009; another Italian, Paola Garrona, moved from the OECD to ISTAT and then to the UN Statistics Division, as Director General in each case; Yves Franchet, the head of Eurostat between 1987 and 2002, had begun his career at Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE), France’s NSO, before moving to the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank; Walter Rademacher, Eurostat’s present Director General, was formerly the head of Germany’s Federal Statistical Office.

  23. 23.

    These are the terms in which American statistician W. E. Deming (1965, 1885) formulated his “professional” principle: “a professional man takes orders, in technical matters, from standards set by his professional colleagues as unseen judges; never from an administrative superior.” Deming, who was especially concerned by the relation between statisticians and their employers in the private sector as well, was an early advocate of ethical codes and played a pivotal in the ISI’s adoption of Declaration on Professional Ethics. See Prévost (2011).

  24. 24.

    Savage (2011, 50) defines entrepreneurial bureaucrats as those “who are skilled at conceiving and articulating an organizational vision; identifying political and organizational opportunities; knowing when and how to exploit these opportunities given various types of constraints; mobilizing political, bureaucratic, and economic resources; and building supportive coalitions and networks inside and outside the organization.”

  25. 25.

    It is worth mentioning that Harold Wilson, Prime minister from 1964 to 1970 and then again PM in a minority government from 1974 to 1976, was himself a statistician during the war and President of the Royal Statistical Society in 1972–1973, while being leader of the Opposition!

  26. 26.

    The Thatcher government’s views in this regard became known as the “Rayner doctrine”, following a review of all government statistical services by Sir Derek Rayner, a former executive of Marks and Spencer.

  27. 27.

    Panagiotarea (2013, 122).

  28. 28.

    Vibert (2007), see 21–29 for lists of bodies in various countries (as well as at the European and international levels).

  29. 29.

    Ibid., 30–33.

  30. 30.

    Ibid., 122–123.

  31. 31.

    See, for instance, Thompson (2010).

  32. 32.

    Article 104 of the Treaty on European Union stipulates that countries must avoid excessive deficits and that the Commission should monitor deficit and debt reporting. As specified in Protocol no 12 defining the EDP, the ratio of government deficit to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) should not exceed 3% and that of government debt to GDP should not exceed 60%. Such targets are conceptually different from the methodology designed to determine if they are met or not.

  33. 33.

    Roberts (2010, 4–5). “Visible non-political objectivity” comes from Fellegi (2004, 197).

  34. 34.

    On this issue and how it has played out in the recent Euro crisis, see Varoufakis, 2016, ch. 6.

  35. 35.

    See, in a polemical vein, Varoufakis (2014) and the comments in Alldritt et al. (2015).

  36. 36.

    For a less recent example, see, for instance, Lemoine (2013), which examines the 1997 controversy over France Télécom (at issue was the problem of how to classify a payment made by the recently privatized enterprise to the French government in order that the latter would assume responsibility for the former’s future pensioned workers).

  37. 37.

    For instance, the unanimous reaction to the Canadian government’s 2010 decision on the census has been met pictured Statistics Canada’s work over the years as nearly perfect, obliterating a number of criticisms and discontents that had regularly been voiced before that event. Very few papers have drawn attention to this. Among them are Beaud (2012) and Yeo (2012).

  38. 38.

    On this issue, see Davies (2017).


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The author would like to thank Mr. Quentin Wallut, Ph.D. candidate, who has helped in compiling and analysing the data.

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Prévost, JG. (2019). Politics and Policies of Statistical Independence. In: Prutsch, M. (eds) Science, Numbers and Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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