Author: Sofie De Broe, Olav ten Bosch, Piet Daas, Gert Buiten, Ben Laevens, Bert Kroese
The need for timely official statistics

4. What made speedy innovation and implementation possible?

Now that we are a year in crisis it is a good time to look back and reflect on the circumstances that caused an acceleration in development of new or partly new indicators and their publications. What were the circumstances that made this possible? Without claiming to be exhaustive we present some of the causes.

Sense of urgency: Crisis creates a sense of urgency at all levels. It was without any doubt that within the statistical office and governmental bodies people felt a common need to do everything possible to help combat the pandemic with everything available from our statistical toolkit. Management quickly prioritized resources in favour of covid-related projects, statisticians worked hard (from home) to speed up their normal work and have shown to be creative in thinking about new, helpful, products from their domain expertise and - not to forget- IT quickly improved the (already existing) home working and virtual meeting facilities to let it all happen. The spirit, attitude and desire  to help was without any doubt one of the enablers of the speedup.

Existing regular and close contacts with users and policy makers: contacts with e.g. Ministries allowed us to quickly gain insight in what kind of information was required during the crisis. In other words: a swift articulation of the information demand as a trigger for innovation.

Timeliness versus quality: Traditionally official statistics has a major focus on delivering good quality indicators. Traditional indicators form the basis for long-running policy decisions and guidelines. In a pandemic the focus is obviously more on timeliness. Results are to be taken as ‘the best possible image of the current situation’ instead of the ‘final truth’. The acceptance of choices in the trade-off between timeliness and quality or preciseness was in our view an enabling factor. This was obvious in the publication of the mortality figures: in the beginning of the pandemic testing was low and the tracing of the cause of death difficult. Statistics Netherlands receives the cause of deaths information with a 6 months delay. However total mortality figures were published within one week and excess mortality appeared to be entirely explained by covid-19 and were therefore a reliable figure on covid-19 related mortality. 

Time to market: New ideas are tested in a Proof of Concept (PoC). Since time to market is crucial in a pandemic, valuable PoC results are to be disseminated as soon as possible. Where in normal times a prototype would be developed and brought into production, it was possible to change publish a quickly developed first PoC (draft) result, followed by the production-ready publication later. Of course the actual decision to do so depends on the specifics of the situation at hand.

Data partners: The sense of urgency was not only present within the statistical office, there was more willingness to deliver data among some of the data partners. Long running negotiations to explore big data sources such as transaction data resulted in an agreement where all partners could show their added value to quickly deliver fast crisis-related economic indicators.

Previous capacity building: Besides all of the above factors, the flexibility to quickly create new output would not have been there, were it not that  the organization  explored new data sources and new techniques during the past few years. The new way of working, the data scouting workforce and the data science knowledge that were built up in the pre-pandemic years proved to be a valuable and flexible factor in the crisis work.

Human resources:  Statistics Netherlands has been able to attract and keep the right people for the task Statistics Netherlands is set out to do: providing reliable, transparent and timely information for policy makers. The recruitment of new people with the right skills and the retaining of competent staff has been a great contribution to the success of dealing with the pandemic.

Europe: International co-operation is a long-running process. Statistics Netherlands traditionally participates in many international projects, task forces and working groups. This network of international statisticians can be used to quickly share knowledge and experience on successes and challenges in the development of new, pandemic-supporting, indicators. It is also a way to reflect on bottlenecks that might be experienced differently in different countries, such as for example using mobile phone data for indicators on mobility or the use of certain types of microdata.