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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  A data collective can strengthen our statistical system
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A data collective can strengthen our statistical system

We need a non-partisan non-official group to help protect the integrity of India’s statistical system

a modern republic requires a collective of engaged data users to ensure that the pulls and pressures of competitive politics do not impair statistical governance.Premium
a modern republic requires a collective of engaged data users to ensure that the pulls and pressures of competitive politics do not impair statistical governance.

Most economists remember Margaret Thatcher as a leader who ushered a new era of business-friendly economic policies in the 1980s. Statisticians remember her as the politician who wreaked havoc on a world-class statistical system. Soon after becoming the UK’s prime minister, Thatcher appointed a Marks & Spencer executive to review the country’s statistical system. In his 1981 report, Derek Rayner argued that statistical information should primarily address the needs of government officials rather than citizens.

The Rayner review led to deep cuts in the survey wing of the government’s statistical service, limiting the range of government data available to the public. The growing opacity around official statistics created the grounds for statistical manipulation. Between 1979 and 1996, the UK government adjusted the definition of unemployment no less than 31 times, invariably to show a lower rate of unemployment, historian Eric J. Evans wrote in Thatcher and Thatcherism.

As public trust in official statistics declined, the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) began demanding reforms. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the RSS lobbied hard to insulate statistical activities from political pressures, and institute independent reviews of statistical products. The government responded by providing greater powers to the UK’s central statistical office in the early 1990s. A code of practice for official statisticians was published in 1995.

A 1998 green paper of the UK government finally announced the death of the Rayner doctrine, noting that official statistics must serve the needs of ordinary citizens. Public confidence in official statistics “has for too long been clouded by concerns about their integrity," it acknowledged. The review advocated an overhaul of statistical governance. It took nearly a decade of experimentation to finally come up with a suitable governance structure.

Set up in 2008, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) today reports to the British parliament rather than to the UK government. Its regulatory wing audits all statistical products on a regular basis. When government officials provide misleading interpretations of public data, it steps in to correct them. As a result, the national statistics office enjoys greater trust than the Bank of England or the courts, surveys suggest. The UK statistical system has redeemed its reputation, emerging as a global role model once again.

It took several decades of civic activism led by the RSS to rebuild the UK’s statistical edifice. Such efforts are required in other democracies too. Statistics are the building blocks of almost all debates in the information age. If we lack statistics that we can all trust, we lose the basis for democratic engagement. With reliable statistics, we can find some agreement over our socioeconomic problems even if we disagree on the cures.

Politicians and policymakers have a vested interest in presenting cheerful statistical narratives. So they are often tempted to subvert statistical institutions even though it may hurt their own interests in the long run. Hence, a modern republic requires a collective of engaged data users to ensure that the pulls and pressures of competitive politics do not impair statistical governance. It is worth noting that a need for a data collective was felt in this country even before India became a free republic. In 1862, a Statistics Committee was set up to standardize the collection of official statistics in British India. Among other things, it recommended that a voluntary “Statistical Society, aided and encouraged by the government," should be set up to help improve official statistics.

It is not too late to make such an attempt today. Over the past decade, a number of non-state actors have launched platforms to make public data-sets accessible and intelligible to citizens. IndiaSpend and Factly have been started by journalists. The Trivedi Centre for Political Data and the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (both at Ashoka University), and the India Data Portal (hosted by the Indian School of Business) are among the initiatives launched by academics. The next step would be for such organizations to form a collective body that helps create a more open and accountable data ecosystem in India.

This data collective can deliberate on the best practices to be followed while collecting, processing, and disseminating statistical information. It can also steer research on database issues facing the Indian economy. Most importantly, it can act as a non-partisan non-official voice to demand accountability from official producers and disseminators of statistics. It can engage constructively with data producers to bring about citizen-friendly statistical reforms.

Such a data collective can take inspiration from DataMeet, an engineer-led group that has played a key role in India’s open data movement. Persistent lobbying by DataMeet has led several government departments to open up non-personal datasets that were previously hidden from public view. This has helped drive up the quantity of public datasets in the country.

We now need similar civic activism to raise the quality of public datasets in the country. This effort must be led by statisticians and social scientists who have engaged with India’s diverse datasets over a long period of time. Such an initiative can have a transformative impact on India’s statistical governance, and deepen our democracy.

This is the concluding part of a two-part series on India’s statistical crisis.

Pramit Bhattacharya is a Chennai-based journalist. His Twitter handle is pramit_b

 

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Published: 31 Jul 2023, 10:31 PM IST
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