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European tie-up lifts Swiss statistics

Bürgi-Schmelz's office produces around 100 publications each year

A bilateral treaty with the European Union on statistics is unlikely to set pulses racing but it will affect the work and status of the Federal Statistics Office.

In an interview with swissinfo, director Adelheid Bürgi-Schmelz outlines the challenges her department faces at a time of widespread public-spending cuts.

The Statistics Office is not just the primary source of information for decision-makers in Swiss politics. It also serves as a fountain of knowledge for ordinary citizens and the business community.

By providing a host of key data, it also helps to create a more accurate image of Switzerland abroad.

Its task is to present bare facts and figures even on highly emotional issues such as immigration or integration.

The Statistics Office saw its budget reduced as a result of a first round of public-spending cuts last year. But the conclusion of a bilateral treaty with the EU will allow it to increase its output.

Under the accord, Switzerland can access a pan-European database. Swiss data will be brought into line with that of the EU and the countries of the European Free Trade Association (Efta).

The deal was concluded in 2004 and has already been ratified by the Swiss authorities.

swissinfo: The Federal Statistics Office regularly hits the headlines with its publications. How have the budget cuts affected your work?

Adelheid Bürgi-Schmelz: It is now even more important for us to make an impact with the limited means available. It means we have to be more creative to translate the reality of Switzerland into figures.

We reduced our production and are no longer compiling certain statistics on Swiss tourism, retail figures and cars.

In some cases we are trying to maintain a basic programme or to find sponsors. By outsourcing and reorganising the funding we were able to resume the statistics programme on overnight stays in Swiss hotels.

swissinfo: Is your office better off financially than counterparts in other countries?

A.B-S.: No, on the contrary. A comparison carried out last year with other small European countries found that we are in a tight squeeze, relatively speaking.

The situation is unlikely to improve when we assume new tasks under the bilateral accord with the EU. We will probably publish substantially more statistics on business and the economy. Therefore it is vital for us to receive more funds.

swissinfo: To what extent can the statistical data you provide counter widespread stereotypes of Switzerland as a nation of watches and chocolate?

A.B-S.: Our publications show the whole range of economic activities, from engineering, the pharmaceutical and textile industries to retail and the health sector.

We want to provide a broad overview of the Swiss economy and cover all sectors contributing to gross domestic product, including those which do not get much publicity abroad.

swissinfo: Do people or certain groups try to exert pressure in an effort to prevent the publication of certain data?

A.B-S.: There has certainly never been a case of a government minister telling us to arrange the figures in a way so as to achieve certain results.

But it occasionally happens that one of the participants in a survey decides to backtrack shortly before publication of a new report. This can trigger a similar reaction among others and make it difficult to ensure equal and fair treatment.

swissinfo: Why did you intervene several times in cases where data from the Statistics Office was used for illegitimate purposes?

A.B-S.: There are United Nations rules on the use of public data. A similar charter in Switzerland stipulates that public statistics must be correct and produced under scientific methods.

It also calls for the authorities to set the record straight and inform the public if data is willingly misused.

swissinfo-interview: Alexander Künzle

The Federal Statistics Office is the country’s main producer of statistical data.
As part of closer ties with Europe, Switzerland has agreed to adapt its statistics to EU standards.
The Neuchâtel-based Federal Statistics Office has a staff of about 550 and an annual budget of SFr82 million ($62.8 million).
It produces about 100 publications, 120 press releases and answers some 100,000 calls every year.

The main source of information for the Federal Statistics Office is the federal census, carried out once every decade.

Last month the cabinet decided to review the census. It wants to no longer base the 2010 census on questionnaires sent to every household.

Instead most of the data will be collected from regularly updated registers held by the local authorities.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR