Official figures don’t lie – at least not in Germany. Or do they?
The European Union doubts whether the statistical agencies of Germany’s 16 states are truly independent, because of the way in which agency bosses are selected. “The appointment procedures for the directors of the German state statistical offices are not in conformity” with E.U. principles, according to a letter dated April 7 from the European Statistical Governance Advisory Board to Germany’s federal interior minister, Thomas de Maizière.
The reason for the complaint is that the heads of the state agencies are not required to demonstrate any knowledge of statistics. Besides, there are usually no external application processes that would provide transparency for the public.
The quality of official statistics should not be taken for granted, as the European Union has recently learned, especially through the unpleasant example of Greece. The government in Athens repeatedly falsified its national deficit ratio for years, a practice that eventually triggered the euro debt crisis in 2010.
No one suspects that any such deliberate manipulation has taken place in Germany, and yet there have been discussions over whether official figures may have been sugarcoated. Some of the figures in question are unemployment statistics and the rate of inflation.
“Even if the quality of statistics in Germany is certainly not our biggest problem, everyone, including Germany, must abide by European rules.”
The reliability of statistical data is an important entity and thus worthy of protection. The European Union believes that to guarantee this reliability, the heads of statistical offices should possess the relevant professional qualifications. However, this is precisely what is not guaranteed in any German states.
Take, for example, the state of Lower Saxony, which is currently seeking a new director for its statistical office. Applicants are expected to have “experience in various administrative areas,” as well as “pronounced leadership skills.” However, they do not need a degree in statistics, as the state’s Interior Ministry confirmed in response to our inquiry.
Both the European Union and experts in Germany have raised objections to such policies. Lower Saxony is “misinterpreting this important leadership position as a pure administrative position,” says the 780-member German Statistical Society. Another problem is that Lower Saxony has apparently only advertised the position internally. According to E.U. regulations, such job announcements must also be open to outside experts, such as academics.
The state government in Hanover rejects the criticism. The European Statistics Code of Practice is not legally binding, so that individual government agencies are not required to adhere to it, argues a spokesman for the state’s interior ministry.
European politicians disagree. “Even if the quality of statistics in Germany is certainly not our biggest problem, everyone, including Germany, must abide by European rules. There is no special treatment,” said Sven Giegold, a Green Party member of the European Parliament.
This is all the more applicable to Germany, which is usually adamant about countries complying with E.U. rules. For instance, German politicians routinely complain that France and other countries do not respect the provisions of the European Stability and Growth Pact, a euro-zone wide agreement on fiscal responsibility.
A nation that takes others to task and claims to be exemplary can expect to be measured by its own yardstick, and Germany could find itself facing criticism from various quarters in this regard. The European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, has not failed to notice that the bloc’s largest country has also ignored other E.U. regulations, such as those that apply to the internal market.
The German states could soon be forced to comply with European statistics rules. The European Union is currently debating a new statistics regulation, which would be legally binding and would require that all agency heads have qualifications in statistics, and that these positions be publicly advertised.
Ruth Berschens is the head of Handelsblatt’s Brussels bureau. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org