In May 2016 an international conference was held in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to mark the 95th anniversary of official statistics in the country. With this conference, Statistics Estonia Director General Mr Andres Oopkaup wanted to bring statistics and their uses to the attention of a larger audience. The event could count on 600 participants, mainly from Estonia. Among them were members of the national parliament, European Parliament, policy makers and many academics including the President of the Estonian Academy of Science. In addition, a number of international guests were invited. On behalf of Statistics Netherlands (CBS), Mr Barteld Braaksma of CBS’ Department of Innovation presented a lecture on the modernisation of statistics, the strategic agenda of CBS and big data. He also exchanged views with experts from the Estonian statistics office about the latest innovative methods to create statistics.
There are two organisations in Estonia producing official statistics: Statistics Estonia and the Central Bank, which has a statistical department. Oopkaup: ‘There are some organisations that would like to become official statistics producers in the future: the National Institute for Health Affairs and the Environmental Council. Our statistics office produces the majority of statistics. We do this with about 400 employees including the interviewers. Approximately 90-95 percent of our production is based on EU regulations.’
The Chief Executive of Statistics Estonia is proud of a number of things which he recently achieved with his employees. ‘Take the last census in 2011. It was in a sense a world record, with the highest response rate of any web questionnaire: 67 percent. The next census, in 2021, is likely to be based entirely on registers. Our goal is that we no longer need to interview our residents for the census. Another success is the resident index our demographers have introduced this year. With the help of the population register, we can now calculate the current population of the country.’ Oopkaup is also proud of the results of the peer review held last year. European Union experts concluded that Estonia's statistical system is at a very high level in terms of compliance with the Code of Practice for European statistics, for example when it comes to quality. ‘As far as I know, only two countries have received such a high rating: the Netherlands and Estonia.’
The organisation that financially supports the statistical office of Estonia is the Ministry of Finance. Unfortunately, according to Oopkaup, the funding is insufficient to carry out the entire work programme. ‘A solution to this problem is to generate revenue from additional assignments. Fortunately, the income share from other sources has increased in recent years, from 7 percent in 2012 to nearly 15 percent in 2015. We have been able to survive as a result.’ Like many other European statistical offices, Estonia is being confronted with major budget cuts. ‘Estonia is a small country: our population is 1.3 million people. But our tasks are similar to those of much larger countries in many respects. In addition, we have to reduce staff over the next five years. To compensate for this, we have done a number of things. Our budget is decentralised so that each department has its own annual budget. Savings remain within the department. This motivates them enormously. In 2014, we began the implementation of Lean, a way of thinking which we hope will help to realise efficiency gains in the years to come.’
The Dutch CBS is working on several big data projects. What are the developments in this area at Statistics Estonia? ‘Since 2008, we have been working on developing methods for the use of mobile phone data in Estonia. Since 2012, this source has been integrated in the production of official quarterly statistics on cross-border traffic. In that respect we are worldwide leaders. We are now working on ways to produce statistics from sources such as smart electricity meters, companies' accounting systems and databases of banks.’ What are the main priorities for the coming years? ‘Our challenges are manifold, for example in the field of automatic delivery of data, a register-based census in 2021, improvements in efficiency, implementation of Lean, innovation in the framework of the programme ESS Vision 2020 (this programme contains important priorities on which the European statistical offices need to take action in order to be ready for the future, ed.), preparations for the EU Presidency of Estonia and our programme ‘zero bureaucracy’.
The conference held last May in Tallinn on the occasion of the 95th anniversary of official statistics was very popular. ‘The expectation was that there would be 500 participants, eventually there were 600. The conference was divided into three parts: the history of statistics, the present and the future. We have definitely achieved our goal of bringing statistics to the attention of a wider audience. We also found some talented people here in Estonia who wish to become ambassadors for us in the future, to promote statistics.’ Many of the speakers at the conference were from academia, both from Estonia and further afield. Our statistics office is proud to have a very good relationship with its scientific partners. ‘A good base for that in my opinion is that access to the required microdata is well-organised.’
Main challenges for Estonia
What are the main challenges for Estonia? ‘For the country, it is the challenge to survive. Our population is declining and ageing. The birth rate is not at a level such that survival in the long term is certain. Economic survival is as important to us as the survival of the nation. Maybe we are so small that we must always be smarter than those with more resources. In that respect, I think the EU presidency in the first half of 2018, for us as one of the smallest countries in the European Union, poses a big challenge’, says the Director General.