For years Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) has been trying to survive a “brain drain”. And on Wednesday, parliament’s portfolio committee on public service and administration cautioned the treasury about the effects its budget-saving recommendations would have on the body’s capacity to operate effectively.
After being briefed by the Statistics Council, the statistician general, and the treasury during the meeting, acting chairperson of the portfolio committee Mina Lesoma stated that it would call for additional funding for the organisation because Stats SA’s statistics are vital in informing evidence-based planning.
The treasury has advised Stats SA on budget-saving recommendations after the latest budget cuts to the organisation. These recommendations include reducing the number of district officers, outsourcing field services and reducing the number of vehicles for field workers.
However, according to the South African Statistics Council’s Professor David Everatt, the reduction of field services and workers will have a drastic effect on Stats SA’s operating ability. Stats SA cannot consider small sample sizes in surveys, because this would result in official statistical results being regarded as unreliable, Everatt told the portfolio committee meeting.
The committee cautioned against the treasury’s recommendation to Stats SA to outsource fieldwork services after Stats SA told the committee that, if it were to outsource its fieldwork, “it would be cutting off its legs as outsourcing will cost more to pay consultants”.
Last year, Everatt issued a statement on behalf of the council that spoke to the importance of statistical results, and the detrimental effects of the brain drain at Stats SA. He stated that if the government does not provide the funding needed, the council would have to withdraw its official statistics support.
The council said it will not be able to endorse untrustworthy data. “This is the very worst option for everyone in South Africa, but the council either endorses the release of data everyone can trust, or the council stops because we cannot endorse data we mistrust,” Everatt said in the statement.
Stats SA is the only source of official statistics in South Africa. If the organisation is inadequately funded, it cannot produce official statistics, which will discourage international investors and hamper reliable planning data for domestic businesses.
Last year, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian, statistician general Risenga Maluleke said democracy would flounder without accurate statistics. He said a significant amount of resources go into collecting information for surveys, including the hiring and training of field workers, and providing them with equipment such as vehicles and telephones.
On Wednesday, Maluleke told the portfolio committee that “in the last four years, Stats SA could not appoint or promote staff”. Employees of Stats SA also lacked sufficient compensation during that time, leading to a high staff turnover because of the department’s lack of prospects and promotions. This leaves Stats SA sitting at a 20% vacancy rate. “Stats SA is losing well-experienced employees,” said Maluleke.
Stats SA has experienced budget cuts since the 2015-16 financial year. The budget cuts have also affected the continuation of specific critical surveys.
Treasury deputy director general for public finance Mampho Modise told the portfolio committee that cuts are necessary given the country’s budgetary constraints. She did, however, say that R3-billion had been set aside for the 2021 census survey, but the portfolio committee noted that this was insufficient for the entire project.
Data in the census, which is the most significant undertaking of the organisation, is used to ensure government funds and services are distributed fairly, delineate electoral districts and measure the effects of industrial development. The data contained in the census is also used to determine the unemployment rate.