Freedom of the Individual and the Duty to Reply to CBS Questionnaires

By Prof. Shlomo Yitzhaki, Government Statistician​

​​Does the Statistics Ordinance Contradict the Freedom of the Individual?

Modern society regards the freedom of the individual as a supreme value, which must be safeguarded. However, it is not an absolute value. It contradicts other values, such as society's need to recruit an army to defend itself; its need to collect taxes in order to provide services; and its need for information. Citizens are requested to provide information to many authorities, government ministries, etc. 

The Statistical Ordinance obligates people who are included in samples of the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) to answer questions, which may invade the privacy of the individual. Moreover, it regards non-replies to CBS questions as a criminal offence. Therefore, it is only natural that people, among them educated people, view the duty to answer these questionnaires as an infringement of the freedom of the individual.

What is the purpose of official statistics?

Every society needs to make plans, in order to ensure that the services it provides will be delivered in an efficient manner. Thus, for instance, when planning a road system, it is essential that the planners have information regarding the amount of people and vehicles that may use the road; for if they don't, the benefits of the road will not justify its cost. When planning a school system there is a need for a forecast of the number of pupils that will require schools, in order to ensure that they will be built in places with high concentrations of children. When the government imposes taxes, or distributes allowances, it is advantageous for it to know which people are meant to pay or receive monies, and what is their income level. This information, which serves as a basis for constructing forecasts for planning purposes, is also essential to the democratic process, since it enables the citizens to know whether the decisions of the government and other authorities do indeed serve the public they are meant to assist, or whether they support narrow special interest groups. That is the reason that all the countries of the world collect and publish official statistics. Official statistics are intended to report to planners, the government and its critics on the state of that country's society.

The importance of the quality of the data collected

A vital aspect of the data is their quality; i.e., the extent to which they represent the truth which they are intended to reflect. Despite their desire to serve the public faithfully, inaccurate data will make the planners unable to do so, because the data they have are incorrect. Even the best planner may construct a school in an area with no children, if the information he possesses is wrong. Accurate data are also important to citizens, who wish to know whether actions taken by the government in fact carry out what the government declared they were intended to do. The data collected must faithfully represent what takes place in reality. Therefore, collecting data that reflects the truth is an essential element in a democratic system. That is the reason that statistics bureaus throughout the world are independent institutions and deal only in measurements. Restricting their activities to only measuring is intended to ensure that there will be no special considerations in the collection and publication of data.

​What is unique about the Central Bureau of Statistics, compared with other companies that conduct surveys?

The questions asked by the CBS are those whose answers are required for conducting a modern economy. These questions are not asked in order to satisfy someone's need for gossip or curiosity. The questions presented to the public by the CBS are not used just by a specific researcher, and are not ordered by a private, commercial or special interest element of any kind. Every question asked has undergone an examination by experts, who determined that it is necessary for the proper management of the economy; or alternatively, for providing answers to questions required for upholding international agreements and research conducted under the aegis of international institutions, including the UN and the International Monetary Fund.

Parliament and the CBS

In order to collect the needed data for managing a modern economy, and in order to provide proper representation of all individuals, it is necessary to approach citizens and businesses and bother them with questions. The legislature recognized this vital need and obligated citizens to cooperate with the CBS. In order to ensure that no-one is injured by this cooperation, the legislature decided that no datum which makes it possible to identify the respondent shall be transmitted to another authority. For this reason, the law obligates the CBS to keep every datum submitted to it secret, and the CBS makes great efforts to safeguard the secrecy of the data given to it. In order to ensure absolute protection for the citizens, the legislature determined, in addition to its demand of the CBS to safeguard the secrecy of the data which make it possible to identify the individual, that any datum submitted to the CBS cannot be used as evidence against a citizen, and not even as evidence in court. 

That is, even if information submitted by a citizen to the CBS is leaked accidentally or through negligence, the courts are ordered to ignore it. 

In order not to bother the entire population, and to reduce costs, it is possible to use modern statistics and only a sample of the population to answer questions.

The importance of a response as opposed to the significance of a refusal

The size of the sample is determined as the minimal range required in order to answer the questions accurately. Each individual person or business in this type of sample represents a large group of other individuals who were not included in the sample. From this aspect, each individual chosen for the sample can be regarded as an entire public of people similar to him. A refusal by an individual chosen for the sample to respond to the questions directed at him harms both that same individual, as well as others - those citizens he was chosen to represent. For example, a citizen who refused to participate in the Family Expenditures Survey prevented both himself, and others he represents, to benefit from the effects of the composition of the expenditures basket on the Consumer Price Index, and thus harmed the representation of others in the uses that are based on data from the Household Expenditures Survey, which are too many to mention. 

With regard to the damage done when the citizen represents himself, it is possible to respond that people have the right of free choice, and we must respect the individual's decision. However, the damage that individual caused to others, in preventing them from being represented by virtue of his refusal to participate, is not possible to justify with the principle of the freedom of the individual, since freedom is a supreme value only as long as it does not harm another individual's freedom. This damage to others by an individual is an additional argument to that of the law obligating citizens to reply to the CBS questionnaire. 

It is possible to forgive selfishness when it does not harm others; but not when it harms others and prevents their representation in data which are used to examine the influence of government policy and the ramifications of government and private planning on the general population. 

In conclusion

The good of society and democracy necessitates that the data presented by the CBS to the citizens and the governing institutions be correct. In order not to constantly harass the entire population, a sample chosen to represent the general population is used. The people chosen for the sample have been given the privilege of representing those in society who are similar to them, and those who refuse to take advantage of it in the interest of their own convenience are harming the representation of those citizens they have been chosen to represent. In order to prevent this damage to the representation of other citizens, the law obliges those approached to reply to questions, and regards a non-response as a criminal offence. In order to protect those submitting data, the legislature determined that the data published by the CBS would not make it possible to identify the person submitting them. In a conflict between the public good and the individual's selfishness, the legislature chose the public good while protecting the rights of the individual​