The data deficiency

September 16, 2019

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Caught up in mounting internal economic pressures and the diplomatic gridlock, the PTI government seems too busy to spare a thought for the apex statistical body, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) or its future.

The delay in the launch of the census report for fear of a political backlash is demotivating the PBS staff that carried out the extensive, expensive exercise worth Rs18 billion, spanning over two years.

Since July 2017, after the exit of Chief Statistician Asif Bajwa, the national data management entity that has 3,200 people on its roll and 34 field offices reporting to the centre has been without a chief. “The body is in a state of flux with many posts vacant. Without a dedicated officer, preferably with some technical expertise, vested with the responsibility of chief statistician, there is a danger of (a) slippage in the quality of work and (b) further erosion of public trust in the national data”, commented an independent statistician who works with PBS occasionally.

When quizzed over the declared unemployment rate, most statisticians concur that the projection is inaccurate

“We do inform the government of our needs and seek mandatory approvals but in the absence of a chief pushing for swift actions, files are buried in a heap on the desks of decision-makers”, a mild mannered senior officer at the PBS told Dawn.

“It is heartbreaking. We diverted our best resources to carry out the census. We had to defer routine work on reports such as Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement (PSLM) and Household Integrated Economic Survey (HIES) but to what end? The political issues surrounding the census release need to be resolved and it should be launched before it becomes too old to be relevant”, another senior statistician at PBS protested.

Many top members of the current hierarchy in Islamabad reached for their opinion acknowledged the value of independent, credible data for improving the quality of public planning and effectiveness of the government’s intervention. The issue of the neglect of PBS, however, failed to excite them as they tried to steer the discussion towards their narrow domain even when there is not much to add to what is already reported.

A minister told this scribe that internally he is trying to develop a framework for the relevant data set to promote evidence-based decision making in his ministry.

“Besides better decisions, the supporting data helps in garnering public support before results validate the position adopted. It is fortunate that now technology can be leveraged for obtaining credible information digitally. It is both cost-effective and more transparent. We hope to complete the exercise soon, use it internally to hit the targets and put it out on a dashboard to facilitate easy access to users. The timeliness of data is crucial. We believe it to be the only way forward for better governance in this fast-changing world”, he said.

The alienated, flustered officers at Statistics House Islamabad couldn’t be persuaded to come on record. Talking informally to Dawn, they didn’t even try to defend the quality of the national data. When quizzed over the declared unemployment rate, most statisticians concur that the projection in the national data is inaccurate.

“The current national unemployment rate of six per cent in Pakistan is certainly under-reported. Either the survey questionnaire is flawed or there are problems with methodology. There is a political dimension of job numbers as well and in a labour-abundant developing nation, this aspect needs to be discounted when framing policies based on them,” commented a former employee. A surveyor present on the discussion table defended himself, “I am just an insignificant cog in a gigantic machine trying to keep to my assignment without bothering about the bigger picture”.

The average household monthly expenditure of Rs32,000 for the lowest of the five income quintiles in the latest HIES is passable but Rs64,000 average monthly income for the highest quintile is laughable. The numbers clash with reality. Such projections shake the public’s trust on official data.

Average Pakistanis may get confused by macro-data where mega-numbers quoted are often beyond their imagination and comprehension but when it comes to personal budgets their insight is extensive. When the micro-data does not conform with their own life experience they tend to dismiss everything as propaganda and end up relying on their own limited knowledge base that compromises the ability of an individual’s economic decision making.

A former officer the Statistics body defended the PBS’s performance. “The technical framework of the apex statistical body is sound as international standards and methodology are adhered to. The problem is that of management. How can you expect any organisation to innovate and improve without managerial oversight? There is a need to consistently invest in technological hardware and manpower upgrades to match the demands of the provision of quality data at regular intervals”, he told Dawn.

“Besides to build trust in the national data there is a need to explain the process and the background. There is no one in the PBS currently who can handle this key task”. In support of his argument, he forwarded the example of the change in the base year for calculation of inflation. “The public perception is that the base year is changed to suppress inflation figures. I am not a PTI supporter but the fact is that the perception is incorrect. The government has very little to do with this. It is a technical requirement for conforming to global standards”.

Under the PTI charge, the statistics division was abolished and the PBS has been placed under the planning and development division with the federal secretary planning to hold the additional charge of the chief statistician.

“The performance of a public sector body is a function of attention and the budget it commands. An understaffed entity without a dedicated leader can’t be expected to do any better. The promise of improving governance will remain hollow unless the PBS is strengthened”, commented another expert.

With new dimensions, sources and issues emerging we ought to be pondering on alternative credible ways of gauging and measuring them. Unfortunately, we seem to be going backwards instead.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 16th, 2019