Be careful how you treat statistics
By: Pali Lehohla
THE IMPLICATIONS of poverty of design thinking and its systems design has reared its ugliest face in Covid-19.
This is not because of the lack of trying but more so because many in public administration do not realise the importance of their contribution to the production of statistics – which is the basic element of the science of the state, hence the name statistics.
The United Nations Handbook on Official Statistics informs practitioners that the genesis and sources of official statistics reside in legislative mandates, policies and observations of the natural and artificial state of existence.
For instance, laws and procedures that deal with registration of population and its movement have a statistical by-product of human population, its characteristics such as age, sex, marital status and place of residence to the level of a physical address.
Most countries therefore still have to run a 5 000 year old operation every five or ten years to count the population – the so called census.
Covid-19 has made it practically impossible to run a census of the population, but it has also given opportunity to reveal how weak systems of the state are. Yet arrogance at the point of inception has come to haunt society.
Our government decided to provide a Temporary Relief Fund for Covid-19. The relative ease to which this fund is accessible is a function of the extent to which design thinking was the basis of systems design.
Even with its sophisticated population registration system, South Africa still faces problems in using this important and well developed backbone to deliver services because those other systems that have to hook to the population register have had major limitations in design thinking.
One of the systems is the Sector Education and Training but officials at the highest level cannot accept a well-founded advice that registered businesses must have an International Standard Industry Classification (ISIC) code.
Today industries such as hospitality that try to apply for relief for their employees are referred to the SA Revenue Service (Sars) to prove that they are in the sector by the department of labour.
Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) has tried to ask Sars to allow it to collocate with the specific task of classifying businesses.
But his again reached deaf ears.When StatsSA asked for budget to update the ISIC coding protocol to the most internationally coherent, the National Treasury refused to allocate the necessary resources.
As the pandemic continue to ravage the globe, ordinary South Africans and its corporates are likely to suffer the effects of bureaucratic arrogance.
Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking has wise words for the arrogant who ignore statisticians - the quiet statisticians have changed the world not by discovering new facts or technical developments but by changing the ways we reason, experiment and form our opinions about it.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.
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