Statistics NZ talking up the data again

A while ago, I noted the tendency apparent in Statistics New Zealand press releases to “accentuate the positive” (at least as staff seem to see it) in any data releases they were making.

In the last few years, Statistics New Zealand has taken to “spinning” its statistical releases.  I use the term advisedly.  I’m sure all the numbers are reported entirely accurately, but my issue is more with which numbers, and which comparisons, they choose to highlight.  Almost always, they seem to emphasise what staff (and management?) presumably regard as good news.  Is that quite the job of a national statistics agency?  Personally, I value good quality data, and technical explanations for apparent oddities –  and the assurance that SNZ has no agenda other than good quality data, adequately explained.  There are plenty of others out there (backbenchers in parliamentary questions?) to highlight the good, or not so good.

I was almost moved to comment yesterday when the business demography data were released, but had better things to do with my time.  But there was another, rather more egregious, example this morning, when the building consents release was headed up “Home building accelerates in the north”, even though the data were showing a second successive five per cent monthly seasonally adjusted fall for the country as a whole.   Of course, those falls came after the rather odd 20 per cent increase in the month of July.

I’m not sure why Statistics New Zealand seems to regard it as appropriate to spin their releases this way.  Having thought about it a little more, I wonder if the managers and deputy secretaries have KPIs for the amount of media coverage their releases get.  If so, there might be an incentive to run a strong story line in the release headline (or the SNZ text).  It could be downbeat stories as well as upbeat ones – either might help meet these media targets.  But downbeat stories prompted by SNZ headlines would be more likely to prompt complaints from ministers’ offices, and all public servants want as few of those as possible.

Is that the answer?  Perhaps not, but there must be something behind it.

And I’m not suggesting they should set out to accentuate the negative – again there are plenty of other people to do that.  But they are a statistics agency, whose integrity and impartiality we rely on.  Perhaps this is boring economist speak, but what would have been wrong with a heading this morning “September building consents data released”, and an opening sentence that read “the number of residential building consents fell in September for the second successive month, following a very large increase in July.  Consents in Auckland appear to be growing more rapidly than those in most of the rest of the country.”?

How about leaving the storytelling to journalists, politicians, economists….and even bloggers.

UPDATE: A glance at this month’s ABS releases suggests they mostly do these things better.

6 thoughts on “Statistics NZ talking up the data again

  1. It’s not a die-in-a-ditch disagreement, but nonetheless I think there’s a good case for the approach that Stats is taking, even in the instance you mention, where I think the Auckland supply response is one of the more newsworthy details worth picking out.
    More generally there’s a reasonable case for making the releases more interesting and less dry as dust while avoiding partisanship or controversy. More user-friendly or user-interesting releases might encourage more use of official statistics, for example, and encourage direct engagement with the data rather than through the filters of often sensationalised or ignorant media.
    There’s also a useful role for helpful even-handed interpretation of the raw data, especially where there have been specific influences (lumpy imports, weather, industrial action, whatever). In the US, for example, I don’t think users of GDP stats were well served by pure data with no mention of the appalling winter.
    As for the ABS being a better model – sheesh! Have you tried reading their ‘commentary’ on corporate profits?
    http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/5676.0Main%20Features2Jun%202015?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=5676.0&issue=Jun%202015&num=&view=
    It’s as if a robot was reading out the cells of a spreadsheet – and this at a time when the state of business investment is one of the most important cyclical issues?

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  2. I certainly agree that SNZ has a useful role to play in drawing attention to odd features of the data, technical explanations etc, and I don’t have an in-principle objection to interesting commentary (altho SNZ resources are scarce, and there are other commentators), but…..what bothers me is a tendency to consistently accentuate the positive (as seen by SNZ staff).

    Re the ABS, my only point was about headlines

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  3. Despite poring over the SNZ & Treasury web pages, I find it hard to get specific statistical information about borrowings. Supposedly, the present National Party government is still borrowing millions every day, to maintain the facade of a “brighter future.” Then there’s talk of a surplus – I presume internal, and net debt vs gross debt and so on. Yet . . .

    Stuff article: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/9380846/Public-debt-climbs-by-27m-a-day

    “Public debt climbs by $27m a day (Nov 2013)

    “Government debt has reached $60 billion, having climbed $27 million a day since John Key became prime minister – and forecasts show it will rise for years to come.

    “Despite tax revenue being higher than expected and expenses lower in recent months, Treasury figures show net Crown debt reached the highest yet at $60,015,000,000 at the end of September. It already equates to 28 per cent of New Zealand’s economic output, is more than $13,000 for every person in New Zealand and is forecast to climb by another $10b by 2017. ”

    When is a surplus not a surplus and who’s kidding who?

    Then and now.

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    • The “surplus” measure that gets the headlines is an operating balance measure, excluding gains and losses from asset revaluations (including, but not limited to, those of NZSF).

      The debt stock includes the implications of capital spending – in a country with lots of population growth, capital expenditrue would typically run well ahead of depreciation (which is in the operating balance measure).

      When i went to work at Treasury for a couple of years one of their shrewder experiencd analysts encouraged me to keep an eye on the residual cash deficit/surplus; a bit akin to people looking at compayn accounts and focusing on cashflow rather than P&L. The data are in the table at this link tp://www.treasury.govt.nz/budget/forecasts/hyefu2016/102.htm and on these estimates a positive cash surplus wasn’t expected until the 18/19 fiscal year.

      Each of the measures is useful for different things. My overall take is our govt finances are in pretty good shape (moderate debt, modest operating surplus, and some pressure for lots of capex because of lots of population growth). Whether the latter is really helpful or not in the longer-term depends a lot on your view of the economic merits of large scale immigration to NZ.

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