Census attempts to clear the air on stats

Thursday, 23 January 2014 00:37 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  •  Says one disgruntled employee brought disrepute; he is to be fired
  • Calls on Parliamentarians to get the full picture
  • Defends move to adopt IMF reporting standards and insists numbers solid
  By Uditha Jayasinghe   The Department of Census & Statistics (DCS) yesterday attempted to set the record straight, insisting that its credibility was unfairly undermined by one disgruntled employee and denied any inaccuracy in the inflation and growth numbers previously released. DCS Director General D.C.A. Gunawardena teamed up with Central Bank Deputy Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe to outline the arduous process the 850-odd employees of the department undergo to compile, analyse and present an accurate estimation or reflection of the economy. “Data required for compilation of these statistics are collected through scientifically designed surveys, census, special studies and administrative records. The staff involved with compilation of these statistics are regularly trained locally as well as internationally. In fact this department annually gets about 30 to 40 foreign training sessions, probably more than any other Government department,” Gunawardena insisted. He went on to say that consultancy services were obtained through the Statistics Division of the United Nations, Asian Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Bank as and when required. Before 2007, indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), growth rates and inflation were compiled separately by both the Central Bank and DCS, but since 2007 the DCS has been given the exclusive responsibility for formulating them. Making several presentations to the gathered media, Gunawardena explained the arduous amount of data gathering done by the DCS requiring 40 price quotations and collection of weekly food data. For GDP and growth calculations, the DCS collects information from 250 institutions and follows exhausting criteria including numerous meetings with stakeholders as well as the relevant departments of the DCS and the Director General himself. “The basket of goods that the consumer price index is based on needs to be changed every few years to reflect the changing consumer patterns of the country. We take the consumption patterns of a cross section of society. Allegations that we ‘fix’ inflation data by using only ‘cheaply’ priced goods is absolutely false. In fact statistically speaking such an effort can have the opposite effect. For example, if we take only a small coconut at Rs.10 and next month it has increased to Rs. 15, then that is a higher percentage than what a bigger coconut would have risen by,” he added. Moving on to the issue of a DCS employee alleging growth numbers were “massaged,” Gunawardena gave details from an internal inquiry where H.S. Wanasinghe had admitted that growth numbers were prone to change and that he had refused to follow the process laid down by the DCS to verify the data before it is released. “This person has been employed at the DCS for 30 years. At this point I reluctantly mention that even though he had the seniority he lacked some qualifications to get the promotions he felt were his due. Six months ago he was appointed as the Acting Director for the Kandy data gathering branch, but his work was poor. As much as 36% of time on his new job was spent on leave and he had instructed his department not to release any data without his approval, even to me. Then he refused to consult with us on the appointed dates and follow the procedure set out by the international standards that we follow. He was insubordinate, incompetent and to top it off he released prior data, which is a task only I am authorised to do,” Gunawardena detailed. The Director General revealed two inquiries had been initiated where Wanasinghe had admitted he did not have sufficient experience to be an expert at his new job. The first step by Gunawardena had been to transfer Wanasinghe, who at that point went and lodged a Fundamental Rights case. “But now I’m going to fire him,” he told media. He went on to say in that particular set of data the Agriculture and Forestry sections had been readjusted to bring the growth rate to 6%. “Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that does such exhausting data gathering. Until the last date, the data can be changed and even what is released is provisional data. We take a year to check the data before it is finalised and recorded. Most other countries including India go by indications.” Dr. Weerasinghe also backed this statement by pointing out that if inflation rates were suppressed one month, they would certainly show up the next month and eventually it would be impossible to release credible numbers. He also told reporters that the Central Bank’s decision to move into international standard data reporting accredited by the IMF this year was an attempt to get credit for the work that they already do. “Our standard of reporting already meets the IMF requirement by about 90%. So we simply want to get credit for that. Moreover, since Sri Lanka is moving into a middle income country, it is important that we also spruce up our data dissemination.” Dr. Weerasinghe also faulted politicians for taking “only part” of the details to match what they wished to state and appealed to media to double-check facts before publishing or airing such damaging information.