EU auditors call on the Commission to improve the quality and timeliness of European statistics

EU auditors call on the Commission to improve the quality and timeliness of European statistics
Credit: ECA

European statistics should be more useful to their users and better tailored to their needs according to a new audit report published by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) last week.

Official statistics are indispensable for evidence-based decision-making by politicians and business leaders, as well as for the work of researchers, journalists and the public. In the EU, they are used for collecting and allocating funds, as well as for designing and assessing policies in all areas, including employment, environment and the economy.

Between 2013 and 2020, almost half a billion euros was spent from the EU budget on the production of European statistics. The auditors checked whether the Commission has taken steps to ensure a high level of quality. They examined the areas of labour, businesses and health statistics in depth, using a sample of five EU member states (Croatia, Italy, Cyprus, Lithuania and Finland).

Quality in statistics is a multidimensional concept. Already in 2012, ECA published a special report on the quality of European statistics. Following up in 2016, ECA found that some agreed improvements had not been fully implemented. In view of recent developments in European statistics, ECA therefore decided to carry out a new audit on the same subject.

Overall, the audit gives Eurostat - a Commission directorate-general and the statistical office of the EU - a ‘passing grade’ and concludes that the European Statistical System is fit for purpose. Still, there are some weaknesses that need to be addressed according to ECA.

“The production of statistics is not an end in itself”, commented Ildikó Gáll-Pelcz, the Hungarian ECA member responsible for the audit. “They are a public good, and must be generated first and foremost with users in mind. In an age of disinformation and serial crises, it is paramount that European official statistics must be high-quality, meet users’ needs and explore innovative ways of production.”

Main findings

Both ECA and Eurostat refer to the results of a user satisfaction survey which indicates that a majority of users, but far from all of them, are satisfied. The latest 2022 Eurostat survey showed that 30% of the users rated the statistics as very good and 41% as good.

The auditors identified four main shortcomings. First, the European Statistical Advisory Committee, the main representative body for users, does not effectively represent all users such as the collective views of the academic and research community. Civil society and international organisations are not involved at all.

Second, statistics in some areas can be submitted up to 24 months after the reference period, which reduces their benefit for users. For example, only a minority of member states have voluntarily sent health expenditure data within four months of the end of the reference year.

Third, Eurostat gives pre-release access for certain key data to its own top management and media. This could give rise to opportunities for economic benefit that may seriously distort markets according to ECA. Several member states have abolished such practice for that reason

Fourth, the auditors identified gaps or incomparable data. In health statistics, ‘causes of death’ data is not encoded in the same way in all Member States, in particular as regards data for dementia. In business statistics, Eurostat’s definition of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), is based on the number of employees (fewer than 250), not taking into account financial criteria.

Commission’s response

In its official reply to the report, the Commission seemed reluctant to accept the audit findings and recommendations. Of the five audit recommendations, the Commission accepted one, partially accepted three and rejected the fifth.

Asked by The Brussels Times at Friday’s press conference to comment on the report, chief spokesperson Eric Mamer referred to the written reply but added that statistics is an area where the Commission always is striving for improvement.

In response to the recommendations, a spokesperson assured that Eurostat will continue its efforts to improve the timeliness of statistics, better meet evolving user needs especially in the three areas audited by ECA, strengthen the partnerships with academia and the research community, and target financial support to innovative statistics projects.

Finally, the Commission will also act to make European Statistics more flexible to emerging needs, learning the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic when mortality statistics and other relevant figures were missing or not comparable.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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