The history of Istat

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In July 2016, Istat celebrated 90 years of operations. The Central Institute of Statistics was first set up in 1926 with Law no. 1162 which attributed it the functions previously held by the General Statistics Department of the Ministry of Agriculture. This was the origin of the concept of statistics as an essential tool for understanding the country’s social and economic situation, and the result of the conviction that this need for knowledge could only be met by gradually centralizing statistics services.

Right from the beginning, Istat depended directly from the head of the government, although it was run independently. When the Institute took over, it inherited a difficult situation: with only 23 full-time employees and 147 temporary workers, and a huge backlog of work given that the available data stopped in 1921. Activities accelerated rapidly, so much so that the 1922-25 Statistics Yearbook containing the data from the 6th General population census and the first Monthly Statistics Bulletin were published.

In the 1930s, statistics production became more systematic, although there were a few interruptions: in 1931, the Seventh General Population Census was held (the first dates back to 1861, the year when the Kingdom of Italy was founded). The census has always been held every ten years, with the exception of the years 1891 – when the census was canceled due to financial difficulties – and 1941, due to the war. In 1935, following the economic sanctions imposed in Geneva, the publication of all economic-financial information was prohibited and Istat suspended most of its publications. Regular monthly bulletins began again in 1937, containing all the information collected and processed but never published by Istat for the entire duration of the sanctions. The Second Industrial Census was held in the same year. Two years later, publications with economic-financial data were once again suspended, although the Second Trade Census was still held.

The 1940s were dominated by the war. Publications were reduced as a third of the Institute’s employees were called to arms, and even the general population census was postponed. At the end of the Second World War, once the archives and equipment transferred to the North along with the government of the Republic of Salò had been recovered, the Institute’s various offices were set up again and some of the surveys started again.

In the 1950s, the production of statistics reflected the country’s post-war reconstruction and the efforts made to kick-start economic development. The first volume of the “National income studies” came out in 1950, and two years later the results of the survey of the labour force in the provinces of Sicilia, Milano, Pisa and Napoli were published, although the survey was extended to the national level in 1957. The “Metodi e norme” (Methods and regulations) series was also created, aiming to offer a coordinated and coherent overview of the Institute’s purely technical publications.

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The sharp changes in society that took place in Italy during the 1960s led to new information needs about the population’s living conditions and behaviour. In 1966, the “Monthly Statistics Bulletin Supplement” began to be published, which soon became a tool for rapidly publishing the initial results of the main surveys. The intention was to make statistical information accessible to an ever wider audience. The following year saw the publication of the “Italian accounts” series, which used national accounts figures to illustrate the most important aspects of the country’s economic development. The first sample surveys of family spending, reading habits and holidays were also launched in the same period.

Alongside the debate on divorce, in the early 1970s, the survey of spousal separation procedures began. The first statistics surveys of the conflicts associated with economic policy and social reform began. Moreover, the ESA (ESA70) was introduced, setting out a European system of rules for the construction of national accounts, which gave impetus to the constant search for coherence between statistics surveys into economic and social phenomena. Regarding technological development, in 1971 Istat adopted third-generation processors, and began trying out the most modern optic reading data entry system in 1975.

The period between 1976 and 1985 was also characterised by an intense debate on the restructuring of official statistics. In 1977 the National Statistics Service Restructuring project was launched to create a public service based on a network concept, capable of providing statistical information in the same location where it was produced.

The 1980s brought further innovations, as statistics information left the sphere of purely scientific interest and began to move closer to citizens. This lead to the creation of the first environmental surveys and multi-purpose surveys on households, along with the opening of the first databases to the public. In 1986, the Institute was included in the research sector, obtaining recognition of its scientific activities.

In 1989, the Sistan (National Statistics System) was set up and Istat was renamed the National Institute of Statistics, although it kept the original acronym, and reorganised in order to include responsibility for steering and coordinating the system itself. The decree which officially founded the Sistan (no. 322) also included the formation of a Statistics Information Supervision Committee, responsible for overseeing the System.

In the 1990s, in the context of a rapidly changing society, the quantitative analysis of economic and social phenomena represents a necessary tool and stimulus to direct public and private decision-making. In 1990, the first “Dissemination Centre” was opened in Roma, to offer users fast and easy access to statistical data and answers. In 1992, in compliance with the law founding the National Statistics System, the first National Statistics Conference was held, to be repeated every two years from then on, representing an opportunity for meetings between the producers and the users of official statistics. Straight afterward, in 1993, the first “Annual report on the situation of the country” was drafted, a publication which has since become one of Istat’s most important.

In 1995, Statistics Information Centres were opened to the public in every Italian region, along with the lines of the one opened in Rome five years before. Quick Notes also began to be published, as extra information about current affairs. The following year, the Institute opened its first official website. From 1998 onwards, Istat began publishing the euro convergence criteria, according to the deadlines and criteria set out in the Maastricht Treaty, necessary in order to evaluate economic performance in Italy.

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The early 2000s were marked by technological progress. Our website became the main tool for communicating and disseminating data, and in 2005, the site was completely redesigned. In 2010, Istat released I.Stat, the corporate data-warehouse for statistics produced by the Institute. I.Stat offers the complete and structured collection of statistics. Access to the data-warehouse is open and free of charge. Still in 2010, Istat opened channels on the most popular social networks (Twitter, YouTube and SlideShare) in order to guarantee a rapid and viral spread of Istat contents on the web.

The production of statistics is also increasingly characterized by the use of important innovations in technology and methodology. Nearly all the surveys of enterprises offer the possibility of filling out the questionnaires directly online, with significant savings in terms of time and resources. In the same way, surveys of families, which are traditionally tied to direct interview techniques with a paper questionnaire, are moving towards digital acquisition techniques with computer-assisted interviews. The choice to acquire data through the internet has been a key feature in the latest censuses, from the Agricultural Census in 2010 to the Population and Housing Census in 2011, and through to the Census of industry, services, public and non-profit institutions, which closed the census season.

From the point of view of the internal organization, the latest important novelty dates back to 2010, in the form of the Decree no. 166 requiring the restructuring of Istat and the consolidation of its role as “regulator” of the collection and management of national and European statistical information. One aspect of these innovations is Istat’s new responsibility for being the exclusive contact for the European Union in the field of statistics, as well as managing the creation of new forms for public authorities and the archives containing them, with the goal of promoting their wider and easier use for statistical purposes.

Moreover, Decree no. 166/2010 marked the foundation of the Advanced School for Statistics, which provides professional training and qualification for Istat and public authority managers and staff. In 2011, the functions previously performed by Istat, which closed at the end of 2010, passed to Istat, while the Institute’s website was completely renewed in terms of contents and functions, making statistical data more familiar and accessible not only to sector operators but also to the general public.

The challenges which Istat faces in the future are no less important that in the past, including the task of transitioning from ten-year surveys to ongoing censuses, in order to meet the emergence of a “demand for certified information” used for supporting public debate and the functioning of the society of knowledge.