THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - Research carries with it fundamental responsibilities and as regards to this article I wish to focus on the subject of doing no harm and beneficence.  

What is considered in these two principles is first to ensure that the subject is not harmed by the research and second that “do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do so.”  

An information society is a knowledge society and according to Helmut Spinner of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Karlsuhe, the technological constraints of access have been resolved.  What remains is for basic rights and human abilities to be unleashed for an information society to be fully realized.  He describes an information society as one where the information of the world is accessible to everyone everywhere at the same time.  Spinner delineates three forms of knowledge.  First he describes knowledge as information and in this regard knowledge is seen in its semantic form without concerns of empirical validity – spin, own facts, fake news so to say. 

The second form is knowledge as understanding whereby knowledge is scientific and validated. The third form is where knowledge is insightful, competent and authoritative. In each of these knowledge spaces there is human and institutional agency.  Statistics is about evidence and politics are about decisions.  For the interplay of evidence and politics to succeed you need a robust planning system. 

Why am I bothered about information, knowledge and understanding?  For society, especially an information society to progress, it must acquire abilities to manage and lead complete lives that are informed, inspired and grounded on information. Official statistics resides in the category of knowledge described as understanding.  Their agency is a crucial step for creating platforms for insights, competence and authority.  The United Nations Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics prescribe as a responsibility of national statistics systems and offices to deliver without fear or favour high quality statistics to citizens.  

This is an inalienable right to a democratic society.  Information asymmetries as and when exist undermine fundamental democratic rights of citizens and stunt their capabilities to engage, let alone imagine the currency of this fourth industrial revolution that is gripping the world.  These asymmetries are plentiful – often times they are inspired by the state including official statistics institutions themselves.  

The systems of evidence and decision making cannot function optimally in a poor planning system. 

Take for instance, the Cape Metro in 2005 was keen to know the population of Khayelitsha despite a census having been undertaken in 2001.  They contended that there are now significantly more people there than was before, possibly double the number counted in 2001.  It could be true that there were more people and our projections catered for that.  But the metro wanted me to count and conduct a census.  

They then approached me as the Statistician-General to conduct the census of the place so that they could be better informed.  I had appreciation of the problem that vexed them, but I also had to understand that my responsibilities were to the entire nation and any measurement of one element that remains oblivious of others would drive asymmetry in information and therefore in decisions and allocation of resources.  

So I declined to conduct a census for Khayelitsha.  Here were the reasons.  First, Khayelitsha had not expanded in size and there would be very little reason to imagine that the population had grown to a million as the pundits in the metro wanted to believe. Secondly, from wherever such people would have come, with the “suspects” being Eastern Cape any increase in the fiscus for Western Cape would have to imply a corresponding reduction for Eastern Cape.  However without a count in the Eastern Cape such calculus would have no formal basis.  So the Western Cape decided to go ahead with the count, I learnt later that they found no one missing nor did they find any strangers who would have increased the population of Khayelitsha to the alarming numbers they thought they had.  Unfortunately they had spent the money. 

Another interesting request was from KZN in 2015 where the province committed to understanding the level of satisfaction that citizens experience or otherwise from services provided by the state.  Here again I questioned the wisdom of doing so from information asymmetries perspective.  However, I consulted with the department of COGTA alerting them to the desirability of conducting such a programme nationally.  

By the time I left office this was nowhere near being implemented.  Fortunately in 2015, I had undertaken a provincial survey on citizen satisfaction with services or otherwise.  The survey reported at municipal level.  Based on the report of 2015, KZN has now committed to a two yearly cycle of citizen satisfaction survey as a basis for engaging citizens and deepening democracy. 

Before I parted I had signed an agreement with KZN on a second citizen satisfaction survey and committed long-term to a two yearly survey cycle on this subject.  Important lessons have emerged out of the KZN citizen satisfaction survey and key amongst them is the statement by citizens on the parlous state of planning for service delivery from national level to local government.  This is an important feedback to the implementation of the national development plan.  The graph above (???) illustrates the point.  The dispersed nature of satisfaction with services by municipalities shows that integrated planning and delivery remains very elusive and unattained.  Therefore, delivery is wasteful and expensive.   

Another request in the last three years was from the Eastern Cape and this was for conducting an agricultural census.  For as long as I can recall, every national director general for the department of agriculture made a spirited bid for an agricultural census which as a serving statistician-general I welcomed to implement.   Of course this was provided the department delivered the budget.  

The desire of the Eastern Cape to go it alone was because of repeated failed attempts for over more than eight DGs and those acting with whom I had to consider the national agricultural census project.  My advice to the Eastern Cape, whilst appreciating their desire including the money they were ready to put before Stats SA was this - no one province can exclusively run an agricultural census in a unitary state because this will generate geographic information asymmetries of production inputs and markets as these go well beyond the province.  Such a partial picture would not be useful for the nation in planning for agriculture as part of an industrial base and infrastructure. 

After twenty three years of attempts over this endeavour for an agricultural census, unfortunately it has not gone anywhere despite government commitments to rural development and agrarian reform.  

KZN now knows about its citizens.  But does the nation know about itself?  Information asymmetries in building a nation are the very basis for corroding such a notion. Without a planning system, even with the best will, statistics system can only be subjected to an ephemeral and sporadic response to the building of a nation. 
Dr Pali Lehohla is a former Statistician-General of South Africa and former Head of Statistics South Africa