Information is the life blood of a democracy. An informed citizenry must judge the merits of government actions through periodic votes for elected officials; their “informed” status comes from widely distributed information. Proportional representation in legislative bodies needs population counts. Policy makers in the private sector and in government need objective information to identify problems and prospects that need investment.
To be useful, statistical information on the society and its economy must be credible. The consumers of the information must believe that the information is not affected by political or ideological perspectives about the phenomena being measured. They must judge that the technical expertise of the producers of the information is sufficient to produce the accuracy fit for their use. They must believe that the information is consistently produced, in order to safely judge whether things are getter better or worse over time.
Who produces such information to power the deliberative requirements of democracies? Across the world, central governments have been given the role to produce national statistical information in ways to maximize their credibility. In that regard, national statistical information forms a data infrastructure that resembles the role of physical infrastructure, like an inter-state highway system, national defense assets, interstate utility grids, and basic science research. All of these are national investments to serve the common good of the society. Their benefits are sometimes relatively small for each individual, but essential to the welfare of the whole country. In some sense, these infrastructures are the threads of the fabric of the society.
Most of us don’t think of the highways and bridges of our locale as valuable – until they exhibit a problem. A bridge is never more highly valued than on the day it breaks and falls. So too when statistical information that is used by a citizenry to evaluate its welfare is threatened or terminated, its value is vividly illustrated by decisions having to be made without its guidance. (For example, a missing report of the unemployment rate can affect stock markets from the uncertainty that is breeds.)
It is also true that the credibility of statistical information can be destroyed much faster than it can be earned. Events in Greece and Argentina in recent memories that were judged as political interference to portray stronger economic statistics than were true, were then followed by years of skepticism about the quality of subsequent indicators. With proof of ideological bias in the statistics, regaining trust that leads to credibility is a difficult proposition.
In few countries are there examples of widespread advocacy for better statistical information. Infrastructure, whether it be data infrastructure or physical infrastructure, rarely produces the passion that other social issues produce. When the infrastructure is well-designed, well-funded, and is innovating at the proper rate, there is really no reason to produce such advocacy.
Such is not the case in our country. We have an aging data infrastructure, starved of new investment for some years. The country’s expenditures have declined in inflation-adjusted dollars. “Bridges” haven’t yet fallen, so the outcry of users is muted. The risk of loss of credibility because of the long-run lack of investment is, however, real. And once credibility is lost, as we have seen in other countries, regaining it may take a long time.