International experts apply yardstick to Statistics Netherlands

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
The Peer review team with Director General Angelique Berg (sixth person from the left)
© Sjoerd van der Hucht
Just recently, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) was the subject of an official Peer review, executed by the European Statistical System (ESS). During the week from 4 to 8 July 2022, CBS colleagues and external stakeholders were interviewed by five European experts from the world of statistics, to assess the extent to which the Netherlands complies with the principles and indicators of the European Statistics Code of Practice. In their findings, the experts called CBS one of the most advanced statistical agencies in the world.
The European Statistics Code of Practice is a self-regulatory instrument for quality assurance and applies to the production of official statistics within the European Statistical System. It consists of 16 principles and under each principle there are a number of specific indicators. The principles are divided into three groups: institutional environment, statistical processes and statistical output. Compliance with the Code is monitored through a system of informal peer evaluation, consisting of self-assessment and peer reviews.

Quality assurance

Carina Fransen works at CBS as senior advisor for international affairs in the Department of corporate strategy and management advice and served as the national coordinator for the Peer review. In this capacity, she was responsible for arranging the Peer review including all preparations. ‘This was an intensive process involving many colleagues. A Peer review is a method of improving, verifying or checking the quality of work by subjecting it to the critical scrutiny of a number of peers. The main purpose of the ESS Peer review is to enhance quality. We at CBS set great store by this.’ In preparation for the Peer review, an extensive self-assessment questionnaire was started in December 2021. Many documents also had to be provided. 'Think of policy notes, legislative rules, results achieved, but also answers to questions about how CBS produced statistics during the COVID-19 period.'

Users' perspective

During the Peer review week, the international team of experts held in-depth interviews with senior management and junior colleagues at CBS. External stakeholders were also interviewed, including the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Change (to which CBS belongs), other ministries, planning agencies, the Dutch Central Bank, the Chamber of Commerce, universities, media, data producers and respondents. There was great enthusiasm among our external relations for participation in the reviews. The fact that the perspective of our users gets attention is a very good thing,’ says Fransen. Fransen herself was interviewed about the many international projects in which CBS is involved and in which it plays a pioneering role. ‘Two notable examples are CBS' co-chairmanship of the ESS Task Force on Innovation and its commitment to groups working on climate-related statistics, both within the European Union and under the aegis of the OECD and the UN.’

Innovative capacity

This time, the focus of the Peer review team was put explicitly on innovative capacity and access to new data sources. To that end, Hank Hermans, Deputy Director of the Economic and business statistics and National Accounts Division, gave a presentation on the innovation of his division's statistical process. ‘The team were open, but asked pointed questions. For example, they asked how the CBS identifies large enterprises, to what extent the CBS speaks the language of these enterprises, etc. In yet another session, there were questions about how CBS measures the administrative burden. That is defined as the time entrepreneurs spend filling in CBS questionnaires. This burden is now stable. We have indicated what we are doing to reduce the administrative burden,’ said Hermans. Another topic was related to the major data providers of CBS, such as the Tax and Customs Administration, the Chamber of Commerce and the Employee Insurance Agency (UWV). Hermans explains: ‘CBS has put a lot of effort into account managers for these organisations. CBS also frequently consults with these organisations at the operational, tactical and strategic level in order to be involved in changes in good time.’

Findings and recommendations

The Peer review team, led by former Director General of the Statistical Office of Croatia Marko Kristof, concluded the week of 4–8 July with the observation that a long list of best practices had been identified at CBS. He was also positive about the open attitude of the statistics office. He called CBS one of the most advanced national statistical offices in the world. Fransen: 'Fourteen recommendations have been formulated for CBS to work on in the next five years in order to improve things even further. They focus on publication policy, confidentiality and privacy, availability of private data sources and the CBS Academy, for example. Looking back, it was an intensive process and a very useful exercise. It is always good to reflect on our performance as we had to do in the self-assessment questionnaire and then be held up to a mirror during the Peer review interviews.'

Action plan

How will the review proceed now? Fransen: ‘The Peer review team prepares a draft report in the weeks following the review, upon which CBS is allowed to correct factual inaccuracies and, if necessary, express a dissenting opinion. Based on the report, CBS writes a SMART action plan for the improvement actions. Our Department of Corporate strategy and management advice takes the lead in this. The final report, to be published in October, will be made available through the website of the European Commission and also on the CBS website. Every year, CBS has to report back on its progress in implementing the Peer review improvement actions.'