CBS expert group to focus on how to measure the new economy

/ Author: Masja de Ree
The Zuidas business district in Amsterdam
© Hollandse Hoogte / Lex van Lieshout
It is becoming increasingly difficult to measure the economy, partly due to digitisation, globalisation and the increasing role of services (such as Uber and Airbnb) in the economy. To address these issues, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) has launched a research programme entitled ‘Adequate measuring of the economy’, which includes an expert group to help clarify and resolve the measurement problems.

CBS is tasked with producing accurate measurements relating to the economy. ‘If we want to keep doing that well, we have to keep up with the changes in society,’ says CBS researcher Maarten van Rossum. ‘We want to continuously assess whether we are focusing on the right issues and using the right measuring instruments. Now we’re calling in certain key users to help us do that.’

The expert group

CBS has been working hard for many years to tackle the measurement problems that have arisen as a result of changes in society, but the organisation cannot do that on its own. The expert group will bring together input from universities, government departments, large municipalities, banks and other actors. ‘We want to look outside our own organisation,’ CBS researcher Wilco de Jong explains. ‘We’re making contact with our users, not only to find out what they need for policy monitoring or answer scientific questions, but to join forces so we can look into potential solutions and work together to make them a reality.’

Complex value chains

The expert group met for the first time in December 2019. CBS asked Fabienne Fortanier, Head of Balance of Payments and Securities Statistics at De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB), to chair the group. Fortanier sees the complexity of today’s economy every day in her work: ‘With a single mouse click, you can buy a product in China. You stream music over the Internet. The components in a mobile phone come from all over the world. And when it comes to Google, the users are the product. That increases the complexity of international value chains, and it’s getting harder to determine what role the Netherlands plays in those value chains. There’s the financial side, too: at DNB we’re seeing more and more international flows, not least from the many “letterbox companies” [businesses registered in the Netherlands only for tax purposes]. The task of matching those cash flows to production and employment in the Netherlands is an enormous challenge, one that demands a change in the way we measure the economy. After all, it’s important for the Netherlands to have a clear picture of our international dependencies and economic relationships at all times.’

‘It’s important for the Netherlands to have a clear picture of our international dependencies and economic relationships at all times’

Top three

‘There was a constructive discussion that involved everyone at the first expert group meeting,’ says De Jong. ‘That was great to see, and it brought us some useful insights.’ CBS is keen to take advantage of this dynamic in the period ahead. The organisation has set out the top three topics to be addressed in the coming year: firstly, industry blurring (e.g. because enterprises diversify activities and there is an ever wider range of business models within each industry; secondly, measuring e-commerce; and thirdly, developments surrounding the platform economy. For example, we see more and more consumers becoming producers in their own right, for instance through Uber, Airbnb and platforms for construction and DIY services. According to Van Rossum, ‘The discussion in the expert group helps us focus on what is important, formulate our questions as precisely as possible, and take advantage of the knowledge and possibly the data that are available at other organisations.’

Global issue

‘Digitisation and globalisation are big challenges,’ says Fortanier. ‘Not just for CBS and our statisticians at DNB, but also for our international colleagues in the field of statistics.’ Countries around the world are dealing with issues relating to the accurate measurement of the economy. Fortanier is keen to stress that CBS is taking the lead in tackling conceptual and methodological issues related to globalisation and digitisation at an international level as well: ‘The Netherlands is an active participant in discussions at international organisations that develop statistical standards. For instance, research carried out at CBS was the basis for many of the examples given in the ‘Handbook on Measuring Digital Trade’ that was recently published by the OECD and the WTO.’

Fundamental discussion

The expert group will meet twice a year. ‘Last time, we looked at some separate building blocks for adequate measuring of the economy,’ says Fortanier. ‘Next time, we will also take a look at the entire framework: what fundamental problems are there, and how can we use new or more detailed statistics to provide a better understanding of those problems? In many cases there’s already a lot of data available, just not always in a form that matches user demand. Together, we need to create a picture of the priorities and use clear definitions for key concepts. Statisticians, policy officers and academics need to get even better at speaking each other’s language. The expert group is an excellent opportunity to do just that.’