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Trinidad and Tobago

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.