Statistician-general lacks authority to co-ordinate stats system
‘If we produce the wrong GDP data or CPI data then it is game over ... Let us try to fix this now before the smash happens’
Legislative amendments are in the offing to make the decentralised statistical system more effective by strengthening the co-ordination role of the statistician-general.
The proposed amendments to the Statistics Act make provision for the establishment of statistical units in other organs of state and trading entities, which will be required to submit annual statistical plans and annual reports to the statistician-general. Currently there is no such obligation.
As of now, a number of departments have their own statistical units including the departments of health, basic education, higher education, police, home affairs, the Treasury and the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation, but the statistician-general does not have the authority to bring these units into the statistics fold.
Stats SA, which produces consumer inflation and unemployment data as well as surveys on poverty and inequality among other figures needed in the policy-making process, wants to broaden its network of statistics-gathering to include other organs of state and trading entities.
A lot of data is sitting in the government's administrative records and Stats SA is already harvesting some this data, for example, the records of births, deaths, marriages and divorces from the department of home affairs.
Statistician-general Risenga Maluleke gave details of the proposed amendments — which have not yet been submitted to the cabinet — in a briefing to parliament's public service and administration committee last week.
He said weaknesses in the Statistics Act meant that its decentralised system of statistics had not been fully implemented because it did not give the statistician-general sufficient authority to co-ordinate the statistical system. This could compromise his ability to adequately meet the data needs of the government and other stakeholders.
The amendments introduce the concept of the system of national statistics. Departments will be responsible for hiring staff for their own statistical units.
“What is happening is that these statisticians (in the various departments) respond to the policy needs of these departments for largely their management information systems. They are not assisting Stats SA to harvest data that comes out of those departments. So we want to strengthen this,” Maluleke said.
After the amendments come into force, the statistician-general could work with heads of departments on a statistical plan for the year. This will, over time, whittle down the cost of the production of statistics by Stats SA, Maluleke said.
Stats SA was in the news recently after the Stats SA council threatened to resign if Stats SA did not get more money.
At the committee meeting, council chair Prof David Everatt stressed the urgency of a meeting of the council with finance minister Tito Mboweni and Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajani regarding the funding of Stats SA, which was allocated R3.3bn in 2020/2021 and R4.9bn for 2021/2022 in the recent budget.
Everatt said a large amount that had been allocated in the budget for the census in 2021 for fieldwork. Stats SA needed staff to manage and analyse the census and undertake the post-enumeration survey, but it had a vacancy rate of 20% and it had been asked to further reduce staff and goods and services.
“The institution right now is at almost breaking point. If you have four people doing five people's work every day of the week, human error is going to happen. It is unavoidable. If we produce the wrong GDP data or CPI data then it is game over. I think that is why we are saying let us try to fix this now before the smash happens,” Everatt said.
He emphasised the need to have a fully fledged organisation to run the census. “We are at a very delicate moment,” he added.