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Let me begin by inviting you to Google Pakistan’s federal and provincial statistics departments’ websites. You will note that federal and Punjab government’s websites will appear prominently, but that of Sindh and Balochistan bureau do not appear at all. The website of Khyber Paktunkhwa’s bureau of statistics still reads ‘NWFP Bureau’ in the search engine, though it provides major development indicators from the year 2009.

Such is the priority attached to compiling and disseminating statistics in Pakistan in an age when statistics play an instrumental role in strategic planning, research and evaluation in any country.

But who cares about statistics? When we talk to officials in these departments, we are told that it is difficult to reform because there is little demand for data. There is some truth in it. After all we have not raised our voices enough for updating the 15-year-old population census data.

The previous government refused to release any information regarding the poverty profile in Pakistan. The inter-industry flows usually provided by supply-use tables was last published in 1991. The provincial gross domestic product (GDP) is rarely updated. We don’t see quarterly national income accounts – so much needed by the private sector for business planning. There are also no inter-regional trade matrices for Pakistan…..and the list for such information gaps can go a mile long.

I am forced to compare ourselves with the neighbours and if we only consider population census as a case in point, then India had a census released in 2013 (current year), Bangladesh had the same for 2011, Sri Lanka for 2012 and Nepal for 2011.

What is keeping us so behind in producing something that is intuitively important for planning and development in Pakistan? We start by analysing three hypotheses.

First, is it the lack of resources that prevents collection of statistics in Pakistan? Second, it may be the institutional governance of our statistical institutions that is preventing them to move proactively. Third, perhaps the lack of capacity in the permanent staff housed at these federal and provincial offices is not allowing proliferation of statistics.

Having a background with the Planning Commission, I fairly remember that the project proposal (PC-I) for updating supply-use tables was twice tabled in CDWP meetings since 2002. The first time the request came for updating until 1999-2000. A similar request came later for updating those tables until 2005-06. Both these requests were entertained with development budget fully provided for. However, both projects remain incomplete to-date. So we may conclude that access to financial resources is not a large part of the problem.

What about institutional governance? For a very long time the Federal Bureau of Statistics remained an attached department of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs Division. In fact the officials at the Finance Division were occasionally accused of manipulating data. Later, it was reorganised and called Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. But it still remained an attached department of the same ministry for administrative and related purposes.

More recently the Federal Bureau of Statistics was merged with the Population Census Organisation and Agriculture Census Organisation. The new entity Pakistan Bureau of Statistics claims that it has wider autonomy now over its operations. This federal entity has had access to various foreign expertise through technical assistance arrangements. Since 2005 GTZ – a German entity has in fact been sitting inside the offices of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics with an aim to build capacity of Pakistani statisticians.

At the federal level, most provincial bureaus of statistics are under the Department of Planning and Development. They house vast teams with an assistant director level position responsible for reporting at district levels. There are also field offices in most districts. One struggles to find studies that have evaluated the capacity gaps of the provincial bureaus.

One of the key weaknesses of the provincial bureaus in the past has been the weak dissemination of their efforts. Still we see at least two bureau offices not maintaining/updating their websites regularly. I often ask a simple question to the assistant directors responsible for their district. What is this district’s GDP? The answer has not come yet.

Taking a look at press clippings, one feels that there have been times when the autonomy of statistics authorities in Pakistan was breached. Not allowing them to independently conduct operations of National Accounts Committee, population census and poverty estimation are a few examples among many. Most of the officials who have headed the statistics department have later complained about the lack of empowerment required to disseminate data in a transparent manner.

Finally we turn to the capacity issue. There are three key constraints here.

First, the statisticians graduating from Pakistani universities lack applied experience. Second, the on-job training provided to the statisticians is usually obsolete (eg Pakistan until today has not been able to completely implement UN System of National Accounts 1993).

Third, the foreign trainings provided to several statisticians pay little dividend as upon their return these officials either do not serve in same positions for long or leave the department on account of a poor career structure. There are examples where statisticians recruited by the Federal Bureau of Statistics are now serving under Section-10 or on contract basis in other ministries or attached departments of the government. One should not blame them entirely as their counterparts in attached departments have a remuneration package which is three times than what they get in their parent department.

Due to these constraints, the federal statistics department has been renewing the contracts of the foreign-funded project being managed by GTZ for in-house capacity building. This is not sustainable unless the officials being trained have certainty of tenure in current positions and are empowered to carry out changes in methodology, compilation and dissemination of data. At the same time, they should be allowed a respectable career path where their promotions on satisfactory performance should be ensured besides allowing a market based salary.

Lastly, the timely and accurate provision of statistics is vital for the post-18th Amendment policy planning and implementation. Our statistical authorities need to respond to the changing administrative roles of various government tiers. One example is not having updated the sampling methodology for conducting micro level surveys across Pakistan. We have a household-level Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey – of which the sampling methodology has rarely changed. One struggles to find any representative data in this survey on for example FATA or Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

Such regions could have become part of our dataset had we adopted revolving samples across various years. The question of how representative is the survey exercise also applies to labour force survey of Pakistan as well as several more frequent exercises such as surveys related to prices and production.

Going forward, there is a need for serious introspection with regards to gaps in institutional governance and capacity. The easiest way towards correction will be to benchmark processes with high performance statistics departments – many of which are open to public through their training or symposiums.

I cannot end without recognising the utter lack of motivation in the official staff working in our statistical departments. This must be addressed not just through financial but also non-financial means such as recognition of services, provision of foreign trainings on merit basis, certainty of tenure, and timely promotion.

This article was originally published at: Business Recorder

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.