Data to face the pandemic: Statistical legislation as a key element
Hernán D. Muñoz
September 4, 2020
In the blog COVID-19: The role of National Statistical Offices during the pandemic we mentioned that the current context has put public statistics in the center of the scene. Pandemic times introduce a challenge to countries’ information systems, both in logistical and technical terms, which has showcased their strengths, but also their weaknesses. In this blog, we will address current institutional deficits, which in many cases, have influenced the reaction and incidence capacity of statistical systems.
The quality of official statistics is strongly linked to the institutional framework within which they are produced. This applies to the statistics produced by the National Statistical Offices (NSOs) and for the rest of the National Statistical System (NSS), as well as the health data that is produced in specific ministries. During the pandemic, counter-clockwise efforts were made to coordinate the different sources of health information registration and to provide timely information about the COVID-19 phenomenon. But the lack of a consolidated system has prevented, in many cases, counting with timely information needed for decision-making. For example, if the majority of countries have recently put in motion their specific information systems on cases and deaths by COVID-19, the lack of equivalent efforts to improve the opportunity of vital statistics, such as deaths for any other cause, has hampered the real dimension of the health crisis and has given rise to a series of public discussions about the real need for extraordinary measures.
The updating of statistical legislation is the starting point to provide tools to the statistical systems to establish standards and to end information gaps. In this way, the normative frameworks that contain the National Statistical Systems are essential to guarantee that data is produced under quality standards and in a coordinated and independent way.
A recent study,  carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) on 18 Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) countries warns about serious deficits in the statutory legal frameworks that, in general, do not have essential conditions for the activity. In the current context, this is translated as a barrier to respond to a critical information demand that requires new approaches and degrees of disaggregation.
A characteristic that stands out in the study is the high existing dispersion in many region countries among laws, decrees and administrative provisions that create a very diffuse institutional framework. This is the case in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua and Paraguay, which have up to eight legal instruments to regulate the statistical system.
On the other hand, the laws of Costa Rica and Mexico, which are among the most modern in the world stand out. In both cases, their NSOs have constitutional autonomy. Mexico was a pioneer in this regard, with a modern and complete law operation in 2008. Costa Rica recently approved a new statistical law in 2019. Here, the process carried out by the country to access the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was key. In the case of Argentina, Chile and Colombia the work with the OECD, also catalyzed similar processes that have not yet been able to overcome the legislative debate.
Internationalization processes usually play a key role setting statistical issues on the reform agenda. The strengthening and modernization of the NSOs are public policies that are often postponed and relegated by other priorities within governments. Therefore, reforms must be addressed while there are windows of opportunity. In this sense, establishing partnerships with national and international actors is a decisive strategic tool to underpin these initiatives.
Paraguay and El Salvador have the oldest regulations in the region. Their legal framework is based on decrees of 1942 and 1955, respectively, and its statistical offices have remained relatively subordinate in the administrative structure. Currently, Paraguay is debating a new statistical law based on a text that includes the improvements in terms of good practices that have been agreed upon in the international statistical community over the last decades and, among other improvements, raises the Institute status to the current General Directorate of Statistics, Surveys and Censuses.
At regional level, a generic statistical law for Latin America and the Caribbean has been approved within the framework of the Statistical Conference of the Americas of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (SCA-ECLAC). This legislation model, inspired by the generic law of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), is a fundamental guide to conduct internal debates in the countries about the proposed laws, and it represents an important boost for those who are lagging behind.
According to the United Nations Statistical Organization Handbook,  a statistical system is robust only when it has an independent governing body, technically and financially. In the international community there is a high consensus on the need to strengthen the independence of the NSOs and their role as coordinating and governing body of statistical systems.  The main challenge is to establish how the statistical system can strengthen links with the rest of the State to respond to its information needs, but in a peer-to-peer dialogue context that does not jeopardize its objectivity. In this sense, the conclusion reached is that independence is not the same as isolation and that the greater the independence, the greater the possibility of getting involved in public policies. In this interaction scheme, the normative framework acquires a central role.
One of the essential points about independence refers to the institutional status of the autonomous body, which implies having its own legal status, assets, financial, human and technical resources. Likewise, it is very important to count on mechanisms for the appointment and removal of the NSO´s director, and a fixed mandate, if possible, overlapping with the presidential term, so his position does not depend exclusively on a political will. The IDB study highlights that in the region there are almost no prescriptions of this type in statistical legislation. With exceptions, such as Costa Rica and Mexico, LAC countries lag far behind in terms of “De Jure” protections for professional independence. Despite this, statistical systems in the region generally show good results and relatively high independence. This resilience characteristic is based on the existence of “De Facto” protection schemes, linked to the commitment and suitability of technical teams, international relations and interaction with key users (civil society, academia, media, etc.), that discourage a political power advance, at least as far as legal loopholes would allow it. In this sense, NSOs tend to adopt strategic measures to strengthen relationships that constitute a barrier for governments that may try to reduce their statistical capacity (Dargent, Lotta, Mejía and Moncada; 2018). That is why, in order to have objective, impartial and transparent data, it is essential to work on capacity building through the generation of partnerships.
Other essential elements of modern statistical legislation refer to:
- Strengthening the stewardship role of the NSOs over the NSS
- Creation of user councils and inter-institutional coordination
- Unrestricted access to all sources of information, especially the ability to access and intervene administrative records
- Specific technological, administrative and organizational standards to protect the security and integrity of statistical databases (statistical secrecy)
- Prescriptions that guarantee accessibility, impartiality, objectivity and punctuality in the preparation and dissemination of official statistics
The perception of independence about who should build the empirical evidence for accountability affects the credibility of the State in general. In times of pandemic, strict measures were implemented that required massive compliance to be successful. Therefore, any element that contributes to the legitimacy and effective compliance with government decisions ends up saving lives.
The absence of adequate legal frameworks represents a barrier to the modernization of information systems in the LAC region. Joint efforts in its promotion with the international community and civil society represent a priority for those of us who want more and better data to support evidence-based public policies. It is crucial for this issue to be at the core of the sustainable development agenda, following the premise of leaving no one behind.
 See “Marcos Legales Estadísticos de América Latina: Realidades, Mejores Prácticas y Recomendaciones” (2019, X. Clark, D. Zaror y J.A Mejía-Guerra) [SPA]
 See https://unstats.un.org/unsd/publication/SeriesF/Seriesf_88s.pdf
 See “Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data”, adopted by the United Nations Statistics Commission in March 2017.