The Dutch government has ratified the agreements governing the way Statistics Netherlands (CBS) works with the public sector, academia and business. A policy decree and a ministerial decree to this effect came into force on 1 July 2020. The new regulations impact the working practices of CBS by establishing clear boundaries while taking greater account of the interests of the business sector. CBS is primarily a data partner for public sector bodies. In exceptional cases it also provides services to the business sector. The implications of the new regulations were discussed with Bert Kroese, Acting Director General of CBS.
It sounds like a lot is changing. Is that right?
‘Yes and no. CBS has always worked mainly for public sector bodies and for public services. This is laid down by law and based largely on European obligations. We do this partly by producing regular statistics and partly by providing additional statistical services. We’ve also been working with academia and business for many years. That will essentially remain unchanged. But under the new policy decree, we’ll weigh up more consciously which statistics we should or should not produce for public sector bodies, which means there are some things that we’ll no longer do. There are things that CBS is not permitted to do, such as issuing policy recommendations and forecasts. There are also assignments that don’t justify asking a national statistical office to provide the statistics, for example in cases involving no substantial public interest. That leaves more room for the private sector.
On the other hand, CBS is a natural partner in statistical research involving substantial public interests. As a data partner for the public sector we’ll still contribute to major social issues such as energy transition, sustainability, poverty and debt problems. Public sector bodies can continue to rely on us for independent and transparent official statistics.
The policy decree means that when public sector bodies approach us with a request, we’ll make them more aware that they have a choice of using us or a private organisation. The ministerial decree also makes clear that we’re only permitted to compile additional statistics for businesses in a few clearly defined exceptions. So in that area too there are things we’ll no longer do.’
What else will this new way of working involve?
‘In particular we want to work more closely with both the public and private sectors on social issues. The Netherlands can be a leader in modern e-government, but only if all parties – public sector, academia, business and CBS – collaborate effectively and intelligently. We therefore identified collaboration as a strategic priority in 2019. As a data partner for the public sector we want to promote data-driven working and contribute to innovation. This could include the use of artificial intelligence, careful opening up of new data sources and the use of new data processing methods. That’s a logical role given our knowledge position as a national statistics institute. We already collaborate with a wide range of parties. Examples include projects relating to web scraping (Dataprovider), artificial intelligence (TNO), the impact of social initiatives (MAEX) and the recent opening up of public transport data (Translink). Collaboration, including with business, is therefore nothing new for us, but we are going to design it in an even more structured and efficient way.’
How will CBS itself ensure that the new regulations are properly implemented?
‘We’ve strengthened our organisation in a number of crucial areas. For example, we’re expanding our Advisory Council with the addition of a new member, Henk Don. He’s a competition specialist and can give us valuable advice. His advice will help us monitor the balance between our role and the role of commercial operators. There’s also a new complaints mechanism and a complaints committee led by Michaël van Straalen. The committee will independently assess any complaints received concerning current or future research. CBS also will employ a designated officer to maintain relationships with commercial operators and ensure that its activities are not anti-competitive. This ‘Competitive Neutrality Officer’ is currently being recruited. A member of the board of directors, Harry Wijnhoven, is filling this role in the interim. CBS employees can consult him if they have any questions or uncertainties about new requests. We’ve also drawn up an action framework for CBS employees that includes a wide range of checks. This is intended to ensure that the rules are correctly implemented and that we carry out proper assessments, and hence no longer take on work that falls outside the scope of the new regulations. We’ll then be able to tackle the social issues of our time on the basis of an awareness of our role and collaboration with other parties.’