Low growth is a challenge for all governments and negative growth even worse. Therefore it is not surprising that the Census and Statistics Department has come under fire by some quarters for failing to adequately explain how first quarter growth shrank as much as 1.6% even though the COVID-19 curfew only made up about a dozen days of the first three months.
Central Bank Governor Prof. W.D. Lakshman last week addressing media declined to comment publicly on the issue but acknowledged that the Central Bank was also surprised by the steeper than expected contraction. He suggested that the Central Bank, together with other public institutions, will attempt to work closer with the Statistics Department to better understand the results they arrive at. However, it is important that the independence of the department is preserved within this process and more resources are given to improve transparency and credibility.
Independent data is central to policy making and Sri Lanka has lagged behind in this regard for decades. Different political parties have followed their preferred policies with little regard whether the data backs their ideas and while it is laudable for the current Government to attempt turning this around it is still important to do so in the right way.
Everyone will agree that a government has to come up with a clear and coherent set of ideas—a vision—and use available resources and instruments as efficiently as possible to produce the results that citizens expect. The risk taking involved in articulating and defining a progressive vision for the future is what defines great leadership. Achieving that vision as effectively as possible requires effective risk management—in other words, good governance. This is the golden goal for the public and independent data helps reach that goal.
In defining a national vision, leaders employ their ideologies and are elected, or not, accordingly. However, the successful implementation of that vision cannot be ideologically driven. It requires sound public policy that is transparent, accountable, and effective.
The best way to improve government is to improve government’s ability to manage risk and produce results. This could be achieved by a shift toward data-based policymaking. While this may sound self-evident, the lack of good statistical data has been a long felt shortcoming in Sri Lanka where even at Cabinet level decisions are made based on belief systems or political ideologies or for personal gain rather than evidence and fact.
Increased investment in a national statistical offices and other data-gathering institutions is therefore essential. This is a point that bears repeating. For governments the paucity of good data is further complicated by the weakness of institutions, particularly the civil service. This is exacerbated by the fact that the poor public perception of civil service results in them not being given enough authority to carry out policies consistently. This means that it is even more important that the civil service have access to the necessary resources to guide its decision making.
Data-driven policymaking would also have the additional benefit of allowing for a more rational public debate on sensitive topics. There are many ways data can be used and how it could influence markets, services and industries needs to be a collective or at least a sensible decision. Ensuring that policymaking is done with data is one way to ensure political leaders are doing the job they are selected for.