HOW can a government truly reassure the population it represents that it is fit for government, and importantly, that it has in place the necessary databases and analyses to provide Parliament and the people with a review of how the economy is performing – a review that people can trust?

A forthcoming article in CommonSpace centres on the existing state of Scotland’s current knowledge of trade with the rest of the UK and with the rest of the world. It follows an article there on the Desert of Scotland’s Statistics by Craig Dalzell. Their recommendation that a Scottish Statistics Agency is required was adopted at the SNP Conference.

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Here the data collection and presentation for one specific and important part of the economy is considered and the conclusion reached is that current data is far from meeting what is needed for a strategy in trade. An appropriate way to deal with this problem is discussed.

Under present constitutional arrangements, international trade is reserved to the UK government. It and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, have agreed a Memorandum of Understanding which commits each of the devolved administrations and the UK government to close cooperation on trade policy and trade promotion.

This does not mean that Scotland has to wait on UK departments providing “regional data” before it can publish the data relevant to Scotland. Indeed, Northern Ireland, a much smaller devolved country, carries out its own survey of exports, imports, and business statistics such as numbers employed, all in the one survey, and then provides the data to the UK Office of National Statistics. Any business sampled for the survey has to fill in the form with a true statement of its business; failure to do so results in a fine. The system has resulted in a very good sample response.

But what do we have here? Words.

The National: Statistician and economist Margaret CuthbertStatistician and economist Margaret Cuthbert

Three times a year, a report on the State of the Scottish Economy is produced by the Office of the Chief Economic Adviser to the Scottish government and signed by him. The latest was produced in February 2019. The importance of trade to the Scottish economy is noted but at no point in the report is the word “imports” mentioned.

This is not surprising. Although there is a survey of exports by businesses in Scotland, there is no survey carried out by the Scottish civil service supporting the Scottish government. No analysis of the state of trade can therefore be given as trade is not made up of exports alone. A country with a large trade deficit as a result of importing more than it is exporting can be heading for economic disaster.

And even on the subject of exports, where the Scottish government produces Exports Statistics Scotland, there is much wrong with the data. The latest report on exports published in January 2019 is based mainly on a survey questionnaire which was sent out to 6,000 businesses in Scotland. Only 1,322 responded, giving an overall response rate of 22%. For some industries, the response rate was much lower.

Faced with the problems such a poor response brings, Scottish government statisticians have and are considering a number of ways that they can bolster the results. For example, might it be possible to use information from private organisations representing Scottish businesses?

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But this itself adds complications as well as a lot of work. A major complication is that these organisations carry out surveys to help themselves answer specific interests of their group. They might have very little to do with the type of information the Scottish government needs; their sample distribution mad types of questions asked in their surveys are unlikely to match either the quality or the rigour needed for their data to add to a government survey. All in all, a guddle that is unlikely to lead to confidence by the public in the government’s statistics.

There appears no sound reason why the Civil Service in Scotland does not follow the Northern Ireland example, attaching NI import and export survey forms to the UK business survey, and dealing with the data promptly. OK, they won permission to do so before devolution, but are we so craven that we are scared to follow suit in our own right?

Margaret Cuthbert is an economist and statistician