Chapter 1.1: Leadership and coordination of the national statistical system


Although there is no official consensus at the United Nations—or among other international organizations—on the definition of a national statistical system (NSS), a generalized description is widely accepted: "the ensemble of statistical organizations and units within a country that jointly collect, process, and disseminate official statistics on behalf of the national government."Endnote 1

Accordingly, the objective of an NSS is to provide relevant, comprehensive, accurate and objective statistical information that sheds light on the major social, economic and environmental concerns and challenges of the country in question.Endnote 2

While considering the foundations and prerequisites of an effective national statistical system, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of "centralized" and "decentralized" systems, this chapter provides an overview of Canada's centralized statistical system, as well as the leadership and coordination mechanisms used at Statistics Canada in the context of such a system.

Prerequisites of an effective national statistical system

An NSSEndnote 3 comprises four stakeholder groups: researchers and training institutes, data producers, data suppliers and data users. The following prerequisites must be met in order for an NSS to be effective:

  • Adopt an approach centred on user needs: the information produced and published should be relevant and meet user needs and expectations.
  • Develop statistical capacity and a facilitative infrastructure: resources (legal context, physical infrastructure, human resources, information and budget), statistical methods and practices, and adapted information technologies; and appropriate professional and technical skills.
  • Ensure statistical coordination, which includes collaboration between NSS actors, less duplication, shared information, and reduced response burden.
  • Provide effective governance in the public interest based on strong leadership and solid management structures and practices.
  • Encourage government-wide engagement and mobilization.

Models of national statistical systems

Statistical systems are considered either centralized or decentralized, depending on the degree and scope of the centralization of the production of official statistics between the central institution and other data‑producing stakeholders.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both centralized and decentralized models. Statistical systems are generally situated somewhere along a continuum between fully decentralized and fully centralized systems. Systems are centralized when most statistical products are produced by the central organization. The best‑known examples are the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Statistics Canada.

In contrast, systems are decentralized when the statistics are produced by several government entities. There can be several forms of such decentralization. When the production of official statistics is carried out according to field of specialization—for example, when statistics pertaining to heath, education and justice are the responsibility of their respective government departments or ministries—this is referred to as horizontal decentralization. Vertical decentralization, on the other hand, occurs when different levels of government are involved in producing official statistics. This type of decentralization is often present in federations. The United Kingdom is an example that illustrates both types of decentralization (see Box 1.1.1).

Generally speaking, centralized systems excel in integrity and efficiency, but face issues relating to the relevance and nature of their relationships with data suppliers and users. As for decentralized systems, their strength lies in proximity: their social and economic statistical units are composed of government departments or entities operating in the same field, thereby facilitating relationships with policymakers.Endnote 4

The advantages and disadvantages of both systems are summarized in Table 1.1.1, The advantages and disadvantages of centralized and decentralized statistical systems. Interestingly, the advantages of one system tend to be the disadvantages of the other.

Table 1.1.1: The advantages and disadvantages of centralized and decentralized statistical systems
  Centralized NSS Decentralized NSS
  • Ability to plan and coordinate across the entire statistical system
  • Synergy that enables the grouping together of activities within the same organization
  • Ability to establish and fund long-term priorities
  • Centralized place for statistics
  • Organizational policies for statistical issues emphasize integrity, impartiality and common goals
  • Closeness to policy makers means more relevant statistical products for these policies
  • Statistics are closely tied to the management of both administrative data and information systems
  • Lack of closeness to government users
  • Perceived lack of flexibility or responsiveness if user consultation mechanisms are inadequate
  • Difficulty coordinating and planning the system as a whole, and sectoral interests can take precedence over the common good
  • Vulnerability to potential political pressures or the appearance thereof
  • Difficulty establishing common standards
  • Increased risk of duplicating efforts
  • Harder-to-control response burden

Portrait of Canada's statistical system

Canada is a federation consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Constitutional powers are distributed between the federal government, and the provinces and territories.

Ever since its initial design in 1867, the Constitution of Canada has granted the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over "The Census and Statistics." The Dominion Bureau of Statistics was founded in 1918, based on that jurisdiction. The legal foundation on which a centralized federal statistical body was created was made official in the Statistics Act, which granted Statistics Canada the legal authority to collect information and produce data while protecting respondent confidentiality.

As a result, Statistics Canada stands at the centre of Canada's centralized statistical system, and the Statistics Act grants it a broad and permanent mandate. In addition to censuses, the agency produces a wide variety of social and economic data, including national accounts and balance of payments.

Other federal government departments develop a very limited number of statistical activities in highly specialized fields; however, they often provide Statistics Canada with administrative data, which serve to produce official statistics. The provinces and territories each have their own statistical office, the size and importance of which vary by jurisdiction. These offices range from a small group of people responsible for liaison and coordination to an established office with analytical and operational capacity. In recent years, these offices have produced data that complement the data produced by Statistics Canada. However, even the most established offices are only a fraction of Statistics Canada's size.

In summary, the Canadian NSS is composed of the following data producers:

  • Statistics Canada, a central agency that is distinct but has the same legal status and administrative responsibilities as other federal departments and agencies
  • The central bank, responsible for monetary statistics
  • Provincial and territorial statistical offices, responsible for matters under provincial/territorial jurisdiction, such as health, education and the administration of justice
  • The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), responsible for statistics from health-care institutions

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), responsible for statistics from health-care institutions

Strategies, mechanisms and tools

The mechanisms and tools that characterize the efficacy of an NSS (whether centralized or decentralized) can be grouped into four major components:

  • The legal framework
  • The role of the Chief Statistician
  • The protection of fundamental values
  • Leadership and coordination with regard to four functions: NSS positioning, consultations and partnerships, national and international influence, and appropriate and relevant planning, management and control mechanisms.

1. The legal framework established by the Statistics Act

The legal framework is of crucial importance to the effectiveness of an NSS. Through such a framework, leadership and coordination mechanisms are developed, and the conditions surrounding the collection of information for statistical purposes are defined. It, therefore, serves as an operational framework and somewhat of a navigational chart for all stakeholders.

In general terms, the Statistics Act grants two primary responsibilities to the statistical agency: (1) data collection and production; and (2) leadership and coordination with regard to statistics.

In the case of Statistics Canada, these responsibilities are articulated as follows.

1.1 Data collection and production

The Statistics Act empowers the agency to "collect, compile, analyze, abstract and publish statistical information relating to the commercial, industrial, financial, social, economic and general activities and condition of the people."Endnote 5

To carry out this function, the act includes provisions that

  • allow data production related to almost all social and economic matters (section 22);
  • allow access to information held by third parties (e.g., departments, municipal offices, corporations, businesses and organizations) for statistical purposes, including correcting or completing existing information (section 13);
  • require the production of a census of population every five years (section 19); and
  • require the production of a census of agriculture every ten years (section 20).

The act also specifies that all information requests from Statistics Canada are mandatory, unless expressly declared voluntary by the Minister in charge of the statistical institute. However, it is important to mention that this broad power to collect information comes with a strict guarantee that the confidentiality of the collected information will be protected. For more details, see Chapter 4.6: Respecting privacy and protecting confidentiality.

1.2 Role of leadership and coordinator of statistical matters

Under the Statistics Act, Statistics Canada is granted a leadership role, along with the responsibility to develop and promote integrated social and economic data and to coordinate this role and responsibility with other federal departments and the provinces and territories. For this collaboration to be managed effectively, Statistics Canada must consult its partners at the federal, provincial and territorial levels, and ensure that information needs are understood and considered, that programs remain relevant, and that priorities are up to date. These consultations also help to avoid program overlap through data sharing, to establish agreements that provide access to administrative data, while also establishing the terms and conditions for sharing the data, and to align definitions, standards and practices.

2. The role of the Chief Statistician,

In carrying out the role of leadership and coordination of a national statistical system, the Chief Statistician's role is just as important as the legal framework. Key factors in the sound operation of the statistical system include the Chief Statistician's role and authority, his place in the hierarchy, his political independence and his public image.Endnote 6

In Canada, the position of Chief Statistician is at the highest echelon of the Public Service; it is equivalent to the office of Deputy Minister in Canada or Under Secretary in the United States. Given this rank, the Chief Statistician must attend all routine meetings of deputy ministers, enabling the Statistician to keep abreast of government priorities. This inclusion into the circle of senior public servants means that the Chief Statistician has not only a front-row seat in assessing the issues of the day, but also the opportunity to share knowledge and prove the relevance of statistical information to government decision-makers.

In Canada, appointments to deputy minister positions are non-partisan. In addition, deputy ministers can be transferred from one department to another; however, this rule generally does not apply to the Chief Statistician given the specific personal and professional skills required by the position.

In the current context, Statistics Canada operates under the authority of the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. However, the organization is not part of that department per se, but reports to the same minister.

3. The protection of fundamental values

Three fundamental values characterize all national statistical systems: credibility, legitimacy, and protection of confidentiality.

Credibility is achieved through solid expertise and the resulting quality and relevance of the statistical data. Information deemed not credible is neither considered nor used. Legitimacy is tied to the importance that society ascribes to statistical activities, and to its understanding that such activities are in the public interest.

As for the protection of confidentiality, the Statistics Act defines the agency's obligations and confers personal responsibility on each employee. Even the courts cannot have access to identifiable statistical data without informed consent from the person concerned. The details of the various protective methods and measures used within the agency are provided in Chapter 4.6: Respecting privacy and protecting confidentiality.

Thus, leadership is the art of striking a balance between the protection of confidentiality and the maintenance and improvement of statistical data quality and relevance.

4. Leadership and coordination–Four key functions

4.1 Positioning the national statistical system

Positioning the statistical system means making the necessary choices to optimize the relevance of the statistical information produced. It also means giving the statistical system direction by developing and communicating a vision, a mission, strategic orientations and clear values for their organization and the system as a whole. This mandate can only be carried out if senior management has a strong understanding of (1) social, economic and environmental issues, (2) their political environment, (3) emerging statistical needs and solutions, (4) their constraints, and (5) their opportunities. Lastly, protecting the system's integrity is crucial. This means protecting the system against political intervention, protecting the confidentiality of collected information, ensuring impartiality, respecting the public interest, and guaranteeing exemplary quality. To ensure that the statistical system is positioned effectively, statistical agencies can rely on the ten Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics of the United Nations as guidance, stated and analyzed in detail in Chapter 1.2: The United Nations fundamental principles of official statistics.

4.2 Holding consultations and maintaining key partnerships

There are a variety of mechanisms and forms of consultation, the most valuable of which include deputy ministers' committees, the National Statistics Council, the Federal–Provincial–Territorial Consultative Council on Statistical Policy, and advisory committees.

The National Statistics Council is one of the pillars of the Canadian statistical system. The Council is an additional ally against politicization: Its mandate is to advise the Chief Statistician about policies and priorities. The Council is composed of distinguished members from the business, university, research institution, provincial government, labour and media communities. They are not from the federal government.

In addition, as part of the Federal–Provincial–Territorial Consultative Council on Statistical Policy, the Chief Statistician meets with provincial and territorial focal points once a year to discuss priorities and concerns regarding statistical policies and programs.

The details concerning these councils, and other mechanisms for consulting and partnering with the various levels of government, and with researchers, the private sector and non-profit organizations, are discussed in Chapter 1.4: Understanding users' needs and maintaining relationships.

4.3 Influencing the national and international environments in which statistical information is used to better support research and decision making

The first kind of influence requires the ability to continually make the case that statistics are a necessary element for societal advancement, and should be used more frequently in decision-making. It also requires the ability to rally all stakeholders around a shared vision of the direction that the system should take. Lastly, it requires relationship building across networks, seminars, expert groups and other formal and informal platforms at the national and international levels to ensure coherence, coordination and collaboration in statistical activities. This entails the ability to influence decision-making at the national and international levels and wherever decisions have an impact on the direction of statistics-related practices. Avenues in this regard include the development of common standards, the adoption of new classification systems, and the promotion of internal practices to broader communities.

For example, the Chief Statistician of Canada in the 2010s, Wayne Smith, helped influence the development of an international framework and international tools and partnerships for managing the data revolution. Most notably, he chaired the Conference of European Statisticians, and took part in the United Nations Secretary-General's Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG)on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development. Through his speeches, such as those delivered in February 2014 to the United Nations Statistical Commission, and in May 2015 at the third International Open Data Conference, he advocates for greater collaboration and coordination within the international community, and for the adoption of the common framework proposed by the IEAG. Ultimately, this will help to seize the opportunities of the data revolution and better respond to the need for reliable data to support decision-making in democratic societies. This advocacy is backed by concrete action, such as Statistics Canada's active involvement in the High Level Group for Modernization of Statistical Processes and its sharing of knowledge and tools within the statistical community. It is also worth noting that the International Statistical Fellowship Program was implemented under the Chief Statistician's guidance. The program has enabled certain developing countries to integrate advancements and strategies aimed at improving the quality and efficiency of statistical production.

4.4 Ensuring that the appropriate foundations (for planning, management and control) are in place to support the production, management, availability and use of high-quality statistical information

To provide the appropriate foundations for a national statistical agency, implement planning, management and control mechanisms along with the infrastructure needed to achieve the desired results:

  • Sound human resource management: Leadership does not mean running the system single‑handedly; rather, it means that the leader implements and builds an organization and a team that  is engaged in achieving the organization's objectives. Details on this subject are available Chapter 2.5: Human resource management.
  • Effective communication networks within the organization: Promote a vision, ensure that employees adhere to a shared vision and values, keep information and communication channels open and transparent, and consult and engage employees around the organization's activities and priorities. To learn more about the internal mechanisms used to inform, consult with and engage employees, Chapter 2.6: Internal communications is devoted exclusively to this topic.
  • Implementation and development of a transparent and effective planning process: This process should also be flexible enough to remain open to new initiatives and innovation. For more details, see Chapter 2.2: Integrated strategic planning.
  • Budget management: Generally, the Chief Statistician has full authority to establish the agency's priorities within an overall budgetary envelope. By implementing a control system with the appropriate checks and balances, the leader can delegate powers while ensuring that the system is managed appropriately. See Chapter 2.3: Financial management provides the relevant details.

Key success factors

In a centralized system like Statistics Canada, the benefit of having one person at the helm of the statistical system is a key factor of fundamental significance. His high level in the federal government hierarchy gives him access to political decision-making spheres. It also enables him to promote the visibility and importance of high-quality official statistics to the authorities within his country, and to establish the contacts required to understand their needs well.

The implementation of a centralized statistical system in Canada made it possible to create and develop many adapted and useful subject-based coordination mechanisms—whether bilateral or multilateral—, thereby ensuring the relevance of the statistics published.

In addition, the system grants the Chief Statistician some authority over the administration of Statistics Canada with respect to staffing, financial management, priorities, and the implementation of concepts and methodologies.


The challenges to be managed are generally associated with the disadvantages of a centralized statistical system. Statistics Canada continues to ascribe considerable importance to channels that allow information to be collected from users to compensate for the potential lack of proximity; moreover, the very fact that the organization is a national agency means it must ensure that it meets the expectations and needs of its many audiences are (see Chapter 1.4: Understanding users' needs and maintaining relationships).

To bridge the gaps in the system and avoid favouring the development of statistics units within the various government departments, the agency must continue to develop its ability to carry out projects on a cost-recovery basis (see Chapter 1.6: Partnerships on a cost-recovery basis).

Looking ahead

Statistical systems are complex entities that must continually adapt to users' needs and deliver unquestionable quality to ensure the credibility and legitimacy of the statistics organization.

The key operational factors that ensure that a statistical system has the capacity to regenerate and remain relevant are  consultations and interactions with a multitude of users, a strategic planning system that integrates priorities, and the mobilization of the resources suited to achieving the established objectives.

Box 1.1.1: Governance and coordination mechanisms in the decentralized UK system for official statistics, by the UK Statistics Authority

1. UK devolution

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a unitary state, but, in practice, it has many of the features of a federal union between its four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Many policy areas fall under the purview of the UK Parliament:

  • international relations, development and trade
  • defence
  • fiscal, economic and monetary policy
  • immigration and nationality
  • health and safety
  • Energy supply
  • transport infrastructure
  • employment and social security

The mechanisms and scope of devolution (dilution of powers) in the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are different in each case. However, each of these nations has a legislative assembly and a government with responsibility for policy decisions and delivery in the following broad areas:

  • agriculture, forestry, fisheries and food
  • education and training
  • environment
  • health
  • housing
  • local government
  • policing and justice
  • sport and recreation
  • regional and local transport

The U.K. statistical system mirrors this pattern, given that each of these reserved and devolved policy areas needs a statistical evidence base. U.K. policy matters are underpinned by official statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics (which may be called the "national statistics institute of the U.K."), along with the official statistics produced by the government departments with a U.K. policy responsibility. The governments for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland support devolved policy matters with their own official statistics.

The principle of devolution with respect to official statistics is found in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. The act provides that the Office for National Statistics may not produce devolved statistics without the consent of the Ministers of Scotland, the Ministers of Wales, or the Department of Finance and Personnel for Northern Ireland.

2. UK decentralization

Unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, England does not have its own legislative assembly or government. The Office for National Statistics and the government departments with responsibility for policy matters for England (or for England and Wales), or, indeed, for U.K. matters, are responsible for official statistics for both England and the U.K. Thus, official statistics on personal and corporation tax, value-added tax, and fuel and alcohol duties are compiled by statisticians in the government department for Revenue and Customs.

3. Coherence through governance and coordination

The devolution and decentralization of powers in the U.K. is complex, as is the devolution and decentralization of official statistics. Benefits arise from having statisticians and statistics as close as possible to the key users of those statistics—public policy-makers. The risk is that this closeness may result in a loss of statistical independence, professionalism, coherence and harmonization. The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 was expressly designed to establish the governance and coordination mechanisms necessary to build the confidence of the U.K. public in a devolved and decentralized statistical system.

The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 created a Statistics Board, known as the U.K. Statistics Authority. The U.K. Statistics Authority has a statutory duty to promote and safeguard the production of all U.K. official statistics with a view to ensuring they serve the public good. The board of the Authority consists of a non-executive chair, non-executive directors, and executive members including the Chief Executive, the National Statistician, and the Director General for Regulation. The board governs its executive office, the Office for National Statistics. The Authority monitors the work of the decentralized Government Statistical Service, including the work of the heads of profession and of the chief statisticians of the devolved administrations. The principles and practices required of all producers of U.K. official statistics are established in theAuthority's Code of Practice for Official Statistics.

The National Statistician

The National Statistician is a statutory office, and a Crown appointment. The role is positioned at the most senior grade of public service, and appointments are therefore made through open competition and after scrutiny by the public appointments committee of the U.K. Parliament. The National Statistician is the Chief Executive of the U.K. Statistics Authority, the Head of the Office for National Statistics, the professional leader of the Government Statistical Service, and the U.K.'s representative in international statistical forums. As the head of the U.K.'s National Statistics Institution, the National Statistician is responsible for the coordination of the U.K.'s European statistics and is the U.K.'s representative to the European Statistical System Committee. The National Statistician is the ultimate statistical authority under the Code of Practice for Official Statistics.

Director General for Regulation

The Director General for Regulation is a statutory office, and the incumbent is appointed by the non-executive members of the Authority. The Director General for Regulation is responsible for monitoring compliance with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. An official statistic can be called a national statistic only when the Authority as advised by the Director General for Regulation concludes it complies with the high standards demanded by the Code. This feature of the U.K. statistical system (positive accreditation of National Statistics) is an essential feature of ensuring coherence and quality in our devolved and decentralized system. Any national statistic that is found to be not compliant with the Code is de-classified, and improvement actions are given to the responsible statistician. The Director General for Regulation has approximately 20 staff who work on the assessment and accreditation of National Statistics.

The Office for National Statistics

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the executive office of the U.K. Statistics Authority, responsible for producing key social, economic and demographic statistics reserved for matters of the U.K. government and Parliament. It is the National Statistics Institution for the purposes of European statistics, and therefore has a coordinating role for ensuring the coherence of the U.K.'s European statistics.

The Government Statistical Service

The Government Statistical Service (GSS) is the cross-government association of members of the statistics profession. It delivers professional training and development to government statisticians and is key to  the adoption of a culture of quality in official statistics, as well as harmonized standards and practices. Its members contribute to committees responsible for statistical policy and standards, for professional development, and for theme leadership. Sub-groups focus on statistics themes, on data strategies, and on international strategy.

The GSS Competency Framework sets out the professional standards that are expected of professional statisticians. The standards are differentiated by levels of experience, from new entrants to experienced, senior statisticians. The framework ensures common standards, and guides recruitment, and promotions. It informs professional development plans to maintain and build the professional capability of the GSS.

The GSS has a good practices team that was created to help the GSS to be the best that it can be. The role of the team is to promote and share statistical good practices across the GSS and to create opportunities for collaboration within and between departments. This is achieved, in part, by producing guidance and standards. The best innovations often come from giving statisticians the ability to innovate in their own areas, and then sharing those innovations within and across departments. This is supported by peer reviews, to identify and share good practices; and by appointing champions in each government department. For example, there is a GSS network of presentation champions.

Heads of profession and the chief statisticians of the devolved administrations

The professional leadership of the GSS consists of the heads of profession for statistics in each government department and the chief statisticians of the devolved administrations. The head of profession is appointed jointly by the national statistician and the permanent secretary of the relevant department. They are the champions for statistics in their respective government administrations, in particular, with respect to ensuring compliance with the Code of Practice and with the harmonization and quality policies of the GSS.

The Code of Practice for Official Statistics

The Code of Practice for Official Statistics is perhaps the single most important mechanism for ensuring coherence, professional independence, and quality in the U.K.'s decentralized and devolved official statistics system. The Code is consistent with the United Nations' Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and the European Statistics Code of Practice. All official statistics should be produced according to the Code, as a matter of good practice. More importantly, official statistics that are to be designated as national statistics must be assessed by the Director General for Regulation as compliant with all 74 practice statements of the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. Once statistics have been designated, it is a statutory obligation on the producer to ensure continued compliance with the Code. This provides the U.K. Statistics Authority with leverage for deploying all the component mechanisms for professional independence, coherence and quality in the U.K. statistical system.

The question is whether these mechanisms address the inherent risks to professional independence, coherence and quality in a devolved and decentralized statistical system, to the extent that the benefits of policy relevance are realized. The U.K. carries out surveys of public confidence in official statistics. The negative results of one of these surveys in 2005 was one of the catalysts for the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and the statutory establishment of the mechanisms described in this article. Subsequent surveysEndnote 7 have found a steady improvement in public confidence in U.K. official statistics. The remaining issues with respect to confidence are about the public's perception of the way politicians are using the U.K.'s professionally independent, coherent and high-quality statistics.

In conclusion, the U.K. decided, in 2007, to maintain a highly devolved, highly decentralized statistical system as the model best able to deliver high-quality statistics where they are most needed. It simultaneously decided to modify existing mechanisms and to introduce new statutory mechanisms, to strengthen public trust in the professional independence, coherence, and quality of those statistics.


Endnote 1

United Nations Statistics Division. 2012. p. 10.

Return to endnote 1 referrer

Endnote 2

Fellegi. 1996. p. 169.

Return to endnote 2 referrer

Endnote 3

Kiregyera. 2015. p. 63–93.

Return to endnote 3 referrer

Endnote 4

McLennan. 2002.

Return to endnote 4 referrer

Endnote 5

Government of Canada. 2005.

Return to endnote 5 referrer

Endnote 6

Fellegi. 1996. p. 167–169.

Return to endnote 6 referrer

Endnote 7

NatCen. 2015.

Return to endnote 7 referrer


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