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Noble: For Better or Worse? Why proposed NSI Bill won’t provide statistics we need

Official statistics seeks to inform the public about social and economic matters and helps develop and evaluate public policy. It is the foundation for a properly run society.

In 2014, the IMF bemoaned: “Growing statistical shortcomings have rendered the conduct of surveillance ever harder and must be addressed.” In other words, the economy cannot be managed without the use of statistical data.

Photo: An online shopper prepares to make a purchase.

By 2018, the IMF noted: “The quality and timeliness of data continue to present a significant challenge to surveillance and policymaking. Staff welcomes the progress made and calls for further efforts to complete data improvements needed for surveillance, prioritise operationalisation of the independent statistical authority, and enhance interagency cooperation.”

This hope is rooted in what we have produced as the National Statistical Institute (NSI) bill.

The larger point is that multilateral institutions and foreign direct investors need reliable data about the country’s performance. We should also care. Only this month, China’s economy was said to be overstated by 12% and their National Statistics Bureau admitted that “some local statistics are falsified.”

Brookings Institute wryly commented, “this is what happens when there is an incentive to skew local statistics.”

The goal of our local effort, which has culminated in the NSI Bill, was “to create an independent autonomous body which would be charged with the production, development, management and coordination of official statistics and guided by the UN principles and relevant Codes of Good Statistical Practice.”

The UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics cite three grounds for the value of good official statistics: can be trusted since they are free from political and commercial influence; produced to recognised standards so that their accuracy and reliability can be assessed and are firmly based on evidence, including administrative data sources; and resourced according to national needs.

Photo: Minister of Planning and Development and Acting Housing Minister Camille Robinson-Regis (centre) poses with some high school students students during a recycle drive in Port of Spain.
(Copyright Ministry of Planning)

It is important that we have invoked these principles since it is critical for us to acknowledge that we cannot fudge our numbers in our little corner. To do it right, we must adhere to international standards and our Code of Practice must be aligned with global principles.

Some of the concerns of Dr Terrence Farrell (Express, 14- 15/02/19) are appropriate and timely. The NSI and its board, as contemplated, will be less free from political influence than the present Petrotrin Board claims to be.

The Minister is the boss with a clear line to the Director General. While there is the reality that there has to be some governmental oversight, how this should be achieved is debatable. Like Dr Farrell, I hold the view that the President has a role to play to ensure we do not descend into partisan behaviour with this ‘public good’.

We have to avoid the fiasco of the past where CSO has been starved of cash and resources, human and otherwise. This will not happen if the funding is seen as a completely governmental—rather than a parliamentary—action.

There must be a requirement for the board to report to Parliament annually about the quality of the output and its adherence to good practices along with any concerns. They must be able to sound an alarm when the official statistics are misrepresented. In this, their role vis a vis the Director General requires clarification.

The production of good official statistics requires more than the appointment of a Director General. There is no designation of any other senior positions and it appears that the present CSO staff, if they wished, would be re-absorbed.

Photo: President Paula-Mae Weekes can play a role in providing oversight for the National Statistical Institute (NSI).

How will the NSI be staffed to meet the needs of the present times? It is necessary to establish some other key positions to protect the integrity of the NSI. The Minority Report—with pointed advice on the standards issue and signed by all the statisticians on the Task Force—was deemed ‘not instructive’ by the powers that be.

The NSI’s role, relative to the other data suppliers, is to demand information. The Bill asserts that the NSI is to access all data from public bodies. This is a flawed approach. This access is not properly defined—the NSI should require only non-disclosive data—and there are no expressed mechanisms to govern this nor to resolve objections.

The Bill ignores the legitimate privacy issues to be managed and the political collaboration required in the case of other ministries to access the required data. It sets up an internal dogfight between any Finance Minister and the line minister for the NSI. To challenge the NSI requires a private entity or citizen to engage in an expensive High Court trip.

This access to data, particularly those of the regional corporations, can create significant possibilities for a new and improved National Statistics. Benefits include new statistics being produced and a reduction of burden on respondents. The access can lead to improved statistical quality and greater time and cost efficiencies.

But our past ‘Cambridge Analytica’ experience, complete with the active participation of Government Ministers, should encourage us to demand checks and balances. This data access should take place in a framework that preserves confidentiality and privacy.

Photo: Former Cambridge Analytica employee and whistleblower, Christopher Wylie.

Under the Bill, NSI will publish meta data (as did the CSO) with the Registrar General and the Central Bank as partners. There is, however, a complete silence about the potential use of micro-data sets and collaboration with academia and researchers. There is no acknowledgment about the ever-increasing numbers of persons who are collecting information useful to the NSI.

Sharing data with trusted users can provide high quality information, thereby helping policy. Some of the benefits of supplying micro-data include a better understanding of large social developments, the ability to analyse systemic risk through the more granular data and the improved appreciation of the impact of policy decisions.

This deficient Bill cannot give us a ‘new and improved’ NSI we want and deserve.

About Noble Philip

Noble Philip
Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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4 comments

  1. Well thanks so much for the feedback on the other high level positions. Sounds like the kind of checks and balances that would take place in any organization charged with the responsibility to uphold accuracy and validity. Had you not stated what I thought should have been obvious, I would have assumed it was a given and those positions already existed.
    The general public would be largely ignorant of these critical points as we don’t have a large number with the knowledge. I honestly was not aware that our business sector was not heavily reliant on data from services such as what the NSI would provide. It just sounds like you need to rally the support and input of the right users. Where are tertiary level institutions in this debate? Aren’t they, I assume, largely dependent on data from government agencies to support publishing research that can stand up to international standards and therefore be suitable for publication? We’re in an age that is increasingly data driven and there are initiatives for governments to make their data open source largely for researchers. Additionally, I believe there was a drive not too long ago to explore local intellectual property for its market value…UWI I think. And the potential for IT and shared data structures for both entrepreneurship and research would warrant a combined interest from these stakeholders in ensuring that same NSI is not going to be a negative source of publicity due to any scandal. International perceptions and investors’ confidence will be of high importance to them. So perhaps you could reach out to these users. Less evident users for this type of data are in the interest of international security, disaster preparedness and response etc. So just expand the implications for failure and reach out to appropriate users.

  2. Noble Philip

    I am happy that you see the dangers that lurk with the use of new statistical data gathering. These can be managed but the Bill is silent. This is my primary concern. But this is what drives my unstated (in this forum) desire to have public consultation and/or meetings with interested parties.

    There has been a casual approach to the issue of the expanded power of the NSI. This expansion of power is in my view appropriate for us as a nation if we are to be more properly guided by public policy. But this cannot and should not be done on a carte blanche manner. This is also why we need to have this body above the dictates of a minister and have it properly report to Parliament.

    The silence of the public comes from a lack of knowledge about what is intended. It is also because our business class is not a dedicated user of data. So in this manner, we face fundamental problems that remain undiagnosed and argue from anecdotes.

  3. Noble Philip

    Thank you Alana for your comments. The integrity of an organization gives protection to the output but arises from the management and the role they play. Lone actors do not upend an organization but the tacit cooperation of others give rise to the tenor of the operating culture. This is the reason why it is unsafe to rely solely on the Director General as is envisaged in the Bill. At a minimum, there needs to be a high level person who also sits on the board charged with the responsibility of ensuring that there is compliance to the Code of Practice and who signs off the acceptance of the data used in the Official Statistics. A kind of high powered Auditor but in the context of a statistical framework. There are other positions such as the head of Economic Statistics and the Data Technology Head and the Census Head that may be named. This will provide checks and balances so that we do not have a rogue Minister or Director General compromising the privacy and confidentiality issues that affects the public.

  4. “How will the NSI be staffed to meet the needs of the present times? It is necessary to establish some other key positions to protect the integrity of the NSI.”
    Protection of the integrity of an organization is a product of the protection of its output. If the author could elaborate on what additional key positions he is referring to and their functions so as to elaborate on how they assist in protecting integrity that would be better.
    As has been described in other commentaries and coverage of the new NSS, the creation of positions, the roles of the agents, the cooperative exchanges and responsibility for deficiencies and confidentiality is presented as formulated within the context of this new Bill. But there is a more fundamental problem that needs to be addressed. And that has additionally evolved and underscored from observing scandals such as the one with Cambridge Analytica. The nature of data and the levels of access have changed since the original Statistics Act. Could broader conversations about a national data policy that consider the types of data, right to access, right and obligation to disclose and publish etc. not lead to answers to many of these concerns? This goes beyond a right to privacy and protection. We can all agree that research that creates richer derivatives from the raw data and information that comes from a statistical authority is needed to inform more aggressive governmental policies. For this to take place we must be aware of what are the most primary questions before we can decide on our roles. One of the most fundamental problems of nations that are chronically reactive to new problems is their inability to re-synthesize their views of existing problems so that they can predict possible future ones.