A key aspect of good governance is the generation and use of data—good quality data, produced through reliable means that can inform policy-making and implementation. The importance of official data need not be underlined—state and national-level poverty statistics are fodder for academic as well as political debates. We know that this is mainly because the headline figures reflect the achievements of the governments in power.

However in the same universe, administrative data is often ignored. Administrative data is the data collected primarily for (or as part of) implementation of specific interventions or functions. Within the government, this may refer to data as varied as that of birth and death registries; cooking gas cylinders issued; teachers’ attendance or mid-day meals served. It is easy to see how such administrative data can be used in monitoring implementation—better data can help identify and plug leakages; ensure better targeting and delivery; and maintain a high quality of service delivery, among others. In fact, the quality of data is both a contributing factor as well as outcome of the quality of governance. Better data, made public in easily digestible formats can also enable citizens to hold governments to account.

In spite of this, just as finer details of implementation of mega schemes are often ignored or glossed over, so is the fate of administrative data. Everyone who works on the ground knows how unreliable they are and the broad reasons for this. Data collection systems are often decentralized with few quality control mechanisms in place; data collection goes largely unmonitored; there is little accountability in the system. For instance, a frontline health worker has to maintain multiple data registers. Where is the investment in their capacity to record, aggregate, report and use this data?

This, of course, is by no means a problem confined to the government. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) I have worked with faced exactly the same issues. Reports generated from data collected from the field were primarily for donor reporting. Implementation teams did not think they needed to look at those numbers and just like the lower-level government officers, they thought they knew exactly what was going on, irrespective of what the data said.

This neglect is not hidden from plain sight. Over various trips to districts and blocks in different states, I have hardly come across a district or block-level official who mentioned an explicit focus on improving the quality of administrative data. The Statistical Office at the district is usually in shambles, with a partly computer-literate officer holding additional charge; most of the data is kept as hand-written records.

So are there any solutions out there? In fact, there are simple ones and this is one of those problems that I believe has some easy top-down fixes. For starters, every cadre-based bureaucrat selected should be given the explicit mandate to improve the statistical capacity in their districts. Start with the Indian Administrative Service (IAS); communicate this to them in their induction training.

Then, once these officers go out to the field, start with the basics—get functioning hardware into those offices and young contractual staff who are comfortable handling those machines. In a governance structure where the bureaucrats call the shots at the district-level, this could well be an easy win. Also, instruct government officers to make random visits to schools, work-sites, health centres and Panchayat offices and on those visits, focus on the quality of record keeping at these places. Once the lower-level staff realizes that their superiors care about the data, the quality of data will automatically improve.

Next, from the state-level, reward districts with the best data management systems and provide a technology-enabled feedback loop. Prepare and share handy data collection formats and institutionalize a training mechanism for all frontline government staff. All these are already provided for in the current budgets, you say? Well, then do nothing new, just make sure the provisions are used as designed.

The challenge with administrative data is not one of conceptual complexity. Sure, there are vested interests and politics at work; but first, it is about focusing on the issue and taking simple administrative steps to deal with the deficiencies in the system. There is no doubt that the returns will be substantial.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a consultant with over seven years of experience in the implementation and evaluation of development interventions.