Pali Lehohla.  Picture: GCIS
Pali Lehohla. Picture: GCIS

Statistics SA has repeatedly missed crucial deadlines in releasing national data, raising concerns about the credibility of its figures.But the agency says it is being "decimated" by a high number of vacancies in key posts and has raised the matter with the Treasury.

Stats SA is the custodian of vital national data. It has missed three deadlines this year and last year postponed data releases twice.

The postponements related to quarterly employment statistics - a survey measuring employment in the formal sector - and the quarterly labour force survey, which includes formal and informal data.

The reliability and consistency of Stats SA data are essential for planning, including the Reserve Bank's determination on interest rates. Several senior officials have resigned or retired, leaving the organisation with gaps in 330 critical posts.

These include mathematicians and managers. It is essential that the agency fills at least 230 vacancies, Pali Lehohla, the statistician-general, said this week.

But a moratorium has been in place on appointments since September 2016 and the Treasury slashed the Stats SA budget by 13% in May.

"The budget cut was a decimation. We've been fighting back. We've gone to the Treasury and said to them this situation is not workable."

But Lehohla denied there were problems with the data or that the resignation of a deputy director-general, Kefiloe Masiteng, was related to the delays in data processing.

"At times the delays are due to me having to satisfy myself that this is good quality. It may not necessarily have to do with people being burdened," he said.

The delays were also a result of tying down logistics for press conferences, where the results were unveiled, he said.

On Masiteng, who left for the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation, he said: "People make choices."

Masiteng was responsible for the population and social statistics unit that publishes employment data.

The latest quarterly labour force survey, for the second quarter of 2017, was postponed two weeks ago and is now due to be published tomorrow. Stats SA said the processing of data had taken longer than expected.

The first-quarter survey was rescheduled in May and the quarterly employment survey for the last three months of 2016 was postponed in April for similar reasons.

When asked about the request by Stats SA for further funding, a spokesman for the Treasury said: "Government is at the start of the budget process and National Treasury can make no comment at this stage."

The budget cut could not have come at a worse time because Stats SA is changing to more digitally based data-capturing processes and the agency required more money to "deal with issues that confront a modern state", Lehohla said.

It was "an absolutely unhealthy situation", he said. Staff were overloaded "and they'll get exhausted, and when they do mistakes will come". He added: "We haven't had a situation where there are mistakes yet. But we are running that risk."

He said the organisation had 2 000 staff at head office and required 6 000. The organisation churns out about 240 data releases annually.

Staffing constraints were "corroding the capital we've built, brick by brick".

Since 2003 the agency has had to rebuild trust after it published incorrect inflation data for 14 months. Stats SA had "messed it up" in 2003, he said.

"We exaggerated, or at least accelerated, the consumer price index for that period," Lehohla said.

Commenting on the spate of data release delays in the past year, Christie Viljoen, an economist at KPMG, said the delays were a concern. "There is always a reason for the delay and if it implies problems in the surveying or calculating processes, it does have a negative impact on perceived reliability," he said.

But many economists considered Stats SA data to be comprehensive and credible because many of its methodologies were based on international best practice, Viljoen said.

speckmana@sundaytimes.co.za

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