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Statistics by coercion?

/ 09:41 PM August 26, 2011

With respect to the 13 priority bills that President Aquino recently presented to the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council, the media reportage has focused heavily on the controversial ones—reproductive health and sin taxes—giving the impression that the other bills are innocuous and easy to pass.

The one that caught my eye was the bill to reorganize the Philippine Statistical System, and so I looked it up.  It is House Bill No. 1382, introduced by Rep. Ramon H. Durano VI, though I’m not considering him responsible for its details.

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By definition, the Philippine Statistical System (PSS) covers official statistics only, and thus excludes private statistics like those of Social Weather Stations. Some time ago, I told the Philippine Statistical Association that this seemed to imply official disregard of findings from private statistics.  (But I’m not complaining about the last Sona’s  citation of SWS statistics on hunger.)

HB 1382 is mainly about merging existing statistical agencies of the government (the National Statistics Office, the National Statistical Coordination Board, the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, and the Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics) into a new official statistical empire, to be called the National Statistical Authority (NSA).

It would create the position of national statistician as the effective emperor, to be assisted by two deputy national statisticians. These are salivating prospects for the career statisticians in government.

The bill gives the NSA some authoritarian powers, as in Section 9: “All agencies of the government are hereby mandated to comply with any and all directives requested by the NSA Board,

either motu proprio or through the NSA.  Failure without justifiable reason by any agency to comply with this mandate shall result in the filing of administrative and criminal cases against the erring government personnel and the immediate superior concerned without prejudice to violation of any other law or regulation…”

Section 23 says that the NSA may post teams of its statistical personnel in other government offices to carry out the work program to be drawn up in coordination with the host offices. These teams shall render fortnightly reports to the National Statistician.  Doesn’t that sound like a statistical Gestapo?  An early draft bill (See <dirp3.pids.gov. ph/pss/FINALPSS.pdf>, Annex 1) uses outright the term “cadres” for these teams.

What is really outrageous, however,  is the following:

“Section 26. PENALTIES.  Respondents of primary data collection activities such as censuses and sample surveys are obliged to give truthful and complete answers to statistical inquiries. The gathering, consolidation and analysis of such data shall likewise be done in the most truthful and credible manner.

“To ensure compliance, any violation of this section shall result in the imposition of the penalty of one (1) year imprisonment and a fine of One Hundred Thousand Pesos (Php 100,000.00).  In cases where the respondent who shall fail to give a truthful and complete answer to such statistical inquiries is a corporation, the above penalty shall be imposed against the responsible officer, director, manager and/or agent of said corporation and a fine ranging from One Hundred Thousand Pesos (Php 100,000.00) to Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (Php 500,000.00), depending on the category of the enterprise or business concerned whether small, medium or large, shall, on the other hand, be imposed against such erring corporation or any other juridical entity.”

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I have never heard of any democratic country that criminalizes failure of respondents to answer all the questions of a survey or census, whether implemented by the government or by a private entity. It is a basic principle in survey work that the responses be completely voluntary.  People have the right to privacy, without need to explain.

The right of freedom of speech, which is a preferred right, includes the right not to speak, as was recently pointed out by constitutional expert Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J. in the context of the recent controversial art exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

I must also point out that the Fair Election Act, in fact, requires exit pollsters to deliberately inform respondents, at the very beginning, that they may refuse to answer. Will people whose right to refuse private pollsters (who are not part of the PSS) is already legally protected then be denied the right to refuse government survey interviewers?

Non-responses are part and parcel of survey work.  Some of those initially sampled will refuse to participate at all.  Even those who agree to be polled will not answer each and every question, even as most questions normally elicit 98 or 99 percent response.

In the SWS’ experience, survey respondents are generally pleased at the chance to express themselves, just as a public service, without expecting personal reward.  Of course, they tell the truth; the election surveys prove it. Why put anyone at risk of punishment?

In my view, the reforms needed by the PSS are not so much in organization, but in statistical agenda.  In particular, the government should do much work to develop its measurement of meaningful social progress.  But its statisticians cannot freely innovate if hampered by authoritarian rule.

Now I’m glad that private survey entities are not considered part of the PSS.

* * *

Contact SWS: www.sws.org.ph or [email protected]

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