What does the advent of the digital age mean for national statistical offices?

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

National statistical offices (NSOs), such as GSS in Ghana and NISR in Rwanda, are authoritative sources for countries’ socio-economic data. NSOs either produce data or coordinate their production for government planning and budgeting. In the digital age, though, many are at a crossroads in their ability to respond to evolving changes.

For one, the demand for more and better data has multiplied manifold (MacFeely 2019PARIS21 2020). This can be attributed partly to the plethora of digital tools that have recently emerged, feeding on vast quantities of data to provide almost, if not real-time, decision-making support.

In fact, it is data that flows across numerous digital platforms that generate the most significant return on investments in digital solutions. When efficiency gains from digital solutions were hard to see, investments in such systems were frowned upon (Strassmann 1997). The situation usually occurred because digital tools developed as silos could not exchange data easily. However, with improvements in design methodologies (prioritising user needs), the struggle in data flows has gone down significantly.

All in all, since data is the fuel driving digitalisation, and as the benefits of well-designed digital tools become more evident, demand for data has increased.

But the reverse is also true. Digitalisation throughout the economy and society is churning out a large volume of data every day. Every internet-connected device is gathering data. And this is the second reason data demand has increased for NSOs. The expectation that ‘new’ data sources can offer valuable opportunities for new measurements (hitherto impossible) is also driving data demand.

Finally, NSOs are finding themselves amid a more extensive data ecosystem. In this broader scheme, which includes commercial and other non-commercial data producers, various new actors pose competition to NSOs. This new development, also fuelled by digital, adds to the pressure to not only produce more and better data but also coordinate the expanding data ecosystem. Of course, situations vary from one country to the next, but in general, NSOs must embrace digitalisation and tap into its intrinsic characteristics to overcome the challenges they face.

So, how NSOs can change & embrace the digital revolution?

The approach needs to be strategic. The ad-hoc solutions (for instance, creating multiple data portals) do not yield long-lasting impacts. Instead, NSO digitalisation strategies should comprehensively capture challenges and leverage emerging opportunities to help chart practical implementation roadmaps. The expansive approach would aid in value creation, operational efficiency, competitive advantage, and stronger data-user relations.

NSOs may leverage their ‘national strategies for the development of statistics’ to anchor digitalisation strategies. Specifically, coherent activities within the following four dimensions could result in solid drivers of digital transformation in NSOs.

  • Committed leadership and senior management with a user-driven and user-centric approach, which is resolute to building long-term learning and development strategy for NSO staff, could be immensely helpful in the journey from digitisation to the digital transformation of NSOs.
  • Updated organisational design, including processes, is integral to this journey. Integrating agility in organisational structure could offer valuable opportunities. For example, a game-changer could be flexibility for experimentation and iteration with digital tools. Also, re-engineered statistical processes enabled by digital means could bring long-lasting changes.
  • Systemic coherence with national digital and data strategies is vital for NSO digitalisation plans. Therefore, it is crucial to be aware of overarching legal and regulatory frameworks.
  • Finally, the choice of digital and data platforms must be fit for the purpose. Incremental but following an overarching set of principles for technology acquisition (such as open-source software) could help instil a solid digital infrastructure in NSOs.

This post was first published on PARIS21

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