Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Statistics • COVID-19 response

National statistical offices still face disruptions and challenges as they adapt to a “new normal”


When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out, national statistical offices (NSOs) around the world acted to suspend face-to-face interviews and asked staff to work from home, even though many lacked adequate technology for remote work.

Now, more than a year into the pandemic, the effects on national statistical offices are far more extensive and long-term than initially anticipated, even despite improvements NSOs have since made in collecting data and upgrading their information and communication technology (ICT). This is a significant finding of the recently concluded fourth round of a global online survey that the World Bank and the United Nations launched last year to monitor the effects of the pandemic on national statistical operations around the world.

This latest survey round, conducted between April and May 2021, focused on technology challenges, funding, and costs of statistical operations. It also covered difficulties related to collecting data on specific population groups. The results show that the situation for NSOs was less optimistic in May 2021 than it was in October 2020. They also reveal large disparities in the ability of national statistical offices in different countries to continue operating.

Key findings from the latest report include:

  • More NSOs are now conducting face-to-face data collection. Globally, 44 percent of NSOs resumed face-to-face data collection as of May 2021, compared to only 4 percent a year earlier. This figure is higher for NSOs in low and lower middle-income countries, where two-thirds of the NSOs have returned to face-to-face data collection, compared to only one-third in high-income countries.

  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic varies across types of NSOs operations. Surveys and censuses have been the most affected operations, while the maintenance of statistical registers has been the least affected. 81 percent of NSOs in low and lower-middle income countries report that surveys have been delayed or negatively affected, compared to 61 percent of NSOs in high income countries, pointing to a more marked divide in countries’ ability to cope. Almost half of the NSOs in low and lower-middle income countries report that the maintenance of statistical registers has been negatively impacted.

  • One-third National Statistical Offices (NSOs) remained closed (as of May 2021) to either all staff or non-essential staff, reversing the downward trend of NSO closures observed in 2020. (We reported in the third round of survey conducted in October 2020 that one-fourth of the offices were closed.) Increases in office closures have been observed in Asia, Europe, and in particular, Latin America. In Latin America, only 39 percent of offices were partially open in May, compared to 71 percent in October 2020. Anecdotally, this increase could be related to the impact of a second wave of the pandemic in these regions.

  • Two-thirds of the NSOs, particularly in higher-income economies, continue to rely on remote work. This result suggests that there are vast differences across countries in the availability of internet and other IT infrastructure necessary for NSO staff to work effectively from home.

  • Almost half of the NSOs report that government funding has decreased since the beginning of the pandemic. Approximately seven out of 10 NSOs in sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa and Western Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a decrease in government funding. Donors and other sources of funding have been more stable than government funding, although the situation has been uneven across regions. For example, 59 percent of NSOs in Sub-Saharan Africa report decreased funding from donors and other sources, compared to 29 percent of NSOs globally. At the same time, four in 10 NSOs report that data collection costs have increased during the same time period, particularly those offices in Oceania and Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Data collection on population groups of special interest has been negatively impacted. Reaching migrants, internally displaced populations and persons with disabilities during the pandemic is a challenge for may statistical offices, including in high-income countries. Reduced phone and internet coverage was cited as the main reason for these difficulties.

These significant and ongoing impacts of the pandemic on statistical operations are exacerbating overall persistent data inequities, particularly in low and lower-middle-income countries, which have been hardest hit.

A further, crucial insight which emerged from this survey round is that more and better financial and technical support to NSOs is key to combat these impacts. For instance, 57 percent of NSOs from low and lower-middle income countries reported that international community and donors played a relevant role in funding necessary improvements in their ICT readiness during the pandemic. Enhancing the stability, quality and predictability of NSOs operations should be an immediate priority for action by governments and the international development community.

To help address these challenges, the World Bank is launching the Global Data Facility (GDF), which will provide a dedicated financing mechanism for countries’ data and statistics priorities. The GDF is designed to leverage World Bank support and catalyze countries’ domestic financing to strengthen the quality and sustainability of national and subnational data and statistical systems. This includes strengthening human and institutional capacity for data collection, management, governance, analysis, and sharing, as well as use and reuse by government and non-government actors around the world. It will support investments to enhance trust in data and data systems and enable more and better data use for decision-making at scale. The facility’s financing framework will help enable the implementation of the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data and recommendations from the 2021 World Development Report: Data For Better Lives. It will also support achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, including efforts to close SDG data gaps.

About Survey of National Statistical Offices: These surveys are a joint effort of the Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study team and the United Nations Statistical Division (UNSD), in coordination with the five UN Regional Commissions. Earlier survey rounds addressed office closures and the disruptions to data collection caused by the pandemic (May 2020), the extent to which restrictions and disruptions had receded or became more widespread (July 2020), and how the NSOs adapted to the new reality by implementing new surveys, developing new protocols for face-to-face data collection, investing in the modernization of their IT infrastructure, and building new partnerships (October 2020).

This blog post and report were simultaneously published on the World Bank website.

Blog posts from earlier rounds:

Craig Hammer is a Program Manager with the Development Data Group at the World Bank. He specializes in governance reforms, and in particular on open government and open data initiatives. His work at the World Bank has included strengthening laws, policies, and regulations focused on access to information, open government data, and data-driven decision-making for improved public service delivery to traditionally marginalized and underserved communities in more than 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, South Asia, and Central Europe. He is a co-author of the 2021 World Development Report: Data for Better Lives, a Secretariat member for the World Bank’s Data Governance Body, and manager of The World Bank’s Global Data Facility, which is the Bank’s primary financing mechanism to support low- and middle-income countries’ data priorities alongside the Bank’s core lending portfolio. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations; a member of the Society for the Policy Sciences; a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science; and a member of the Council of Editors for the Journal of Law and Politics. He has published books, chapters, and refereed journal articles on topics including development data, law, and governance. Read More

Luis Gonzalez Morales is Chief of the Web Development and Data Visualization Unit and focal point on Data Revolution for Sustainable Development at the UN Statistics Division. He is part of the Secretariat’s team organizing the UN World Data Forum and supporting the Highlevel Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for statistics for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and coleads initiatives in data interoperability and integration of geospatial information and statistics for the SDGs. Since he joined the Statistics Division in 2005, Luis has worked with national statistical offices and international partners on methodology and capacity development projects, particularly in the fields of economic statistics, data quality, development indicators, and the coordination of national statistical activities for the SDGs. He has a PhD in Economics from the University of Bochum in Germany and an MSc in Statistics from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Studies in Mexico.

Ivette Contreras is a Consultant at the Data Production and Methods Unit of the Development Data Group of the World Bank. She is a Ph.D. Candidate in Economics at George Washington University. Her research is focused on development economics, with special emphasis on migration, and survey methods. Read More

Philip Wollburg is an Economist in the World Bank’s Development Data Group in the Data Production and Methods Unit. His research interests include agriculture, poverty, and climate impacts in low-income countries, as well as methodological aspects of and technological innovation in the measurement of key development indicators. Prior to joining the World Bank, he worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and led a project aimed at delivering innovative renewable energy solutions to smallholder agricultural and fisheries communities in East Africa. He holds a post-graduate degree in development economics from the University of Oxford. Read More