Solid reputation of Statistics Netherlands (CBS) ‘at risk’

22 January 2016

Statistics Netherlands (CBS), the Dutch national statistics office, has always had a solid, if somewhat dull, reputation. The organisation published data, but didn’t do projections and was reluctant to offer interpretations. Meanwhile, it was considered to be among the best statistics offices in the world. But over the past two years, there have been some changes.

In 2014, the newly appointed director of the CBS said in an interview (in Dutch) that he wanted his organisation to participate in public debates. Not to express opinions, he assured, but to correct «inaccurate representations». Asked for an example, he referred to the Pikkety debate. He felt that data about inequality had been used to provoke a response of «emotional aversion».

In early 2015, the CBS developed a strategic agenda. Some elements of this agenda were about its core business. For example, the CBS wants to automate in order to become less dependent on spreadsheets and manual data processing - which seems to make sense. But the emphasis was on becoming a «news organisation» with a «prime time focus».

Today, Rutger Bregman of De Correspondent has published an analysis (in Dutch) of the new course of the CBS. The organisation plans to stop collecting data on a wide range of topics, including private debts to car dealers and credit card firms, and patients’ satisfaction with health care. Meanwhile, it has invested in a «newsroom».

Bregman discusses a number of instances where the CBS took a position in charged political debates on topics like inequality and the effects of child care cuts. He argues that its role in those debates was dubious. For example, the CBS said that participants in support programmes for job seekers are more likely to find a job than non-participants, without pointing out that this says nothing about the effectiveness of these programmes. Of course, the broader issue is that the CBS gets caught up in controversies, which may undermine public confidence in its data.

Public funding of the CBS has been cut. Income from external clients has risen from 5% to 15% and is expected to reach 25% by 2019, according to a chart in Bregman’s article. The government has sent a proposal to Parliament to dismantle the independent body that determines the research programme of the CBS (an amendment to preserve the independence of the CBS will put to a vote on Tuesday). Bregman concludes:

[…] data is easily misused. A statistics office that wants to offer more interpretation, wants to make the headlines more often, wants to earn more money and has less oversight, runs more of a risk to do so, no matter how you look at it. The CBS has become world-class precisely by resisting this temptation.

In his article, Bregman indicates he sent his article to the CBS last week, but apparently they declined to comment. Today, their chief economist has responded on Twitter to one of the controversies discussed by Bregman. According to one of their researchers, Bregman’s article has created quite a stir within the CBS already.

22 January 2016 | Categories: data