Outsourcing Stats SA’S functions or imposing hefty budget cuts a bad move

Outsourcing Stats SA’S functions or imposing hefty budget cuts a bad move

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By Pali Lehohla

MARIANA Muzzucato, a Presidential Economic Advisory Council member, has breathed life into the contestations about the political economy and the role of the government in the state.

Muzzucato has introduced a concept of an entrepreneurial state. She has argued that state-owned entreprises (SOES) become the backbone and the interlocutor of the government and the private sector in achieving the mission of the state.

Muzzucato dismisses the binary of the government as ineffective and the private sector better.

To this end, she cites mega state projects of landing the first person on the moon.

The government-sponsored programme spawned major scientific endeavours and discoveries that enabled the American private sector to leapfrog into major technological ventures.

The apartheid state understood the concept of an entrepreneurial state, by creating a network of SOES that were interlocutors into the private sector, in order to propel South Africa into an industrialised country.

Yet, ironically, when Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) presented its budget recently, the National Treasury offered queer advice to it.

Without any sense of international convention, legislative relevance and constitutional context, the Treasury agitated for Stats SA to outsource its field operations to mitigate, severe cuts. The cuts are so severe that they will stifle the dividends of building a formidable organisation – an entrepreneurial institution, and will eat the seed that renews it, killing it at a time when Covid-19 has elevated the need for a scientific approach in the management of state affairs.

The ubiquitous nature of the pandemic in economic, social and political life has also brought about multiple opinions, conjectures, conspiracy theories and political economy of vaccines which could well drive the world into an unpredictable crisis threatening détente and multilateralism.

The post-world War II politics decided to establish the UN Statistics Commission as the central feature of the scientific backbone for global governance, leadership and management for peace.

It advocated for national statistics institutions to be the main bodies running the architecture globally.

To undertake the task, they govern through Ten Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics. The principles became global law in 2014, under General Assembly Resolution 68/261. Structures such as the Treasury and the SA Reserve Bank are institutions referenced in the Constitution of South Africa in terms of their functions.

In a way, they are so stately that they are institutions of the state whose functions cannot be outsourced.

Stats SA may not be referenced in the Constitution, yet its role is implied because it is the heartbeat of statecraft.

And perhaps there is reason for it to assume a similar status in the revised Statistics Act. Thus its functions cannot be outsourced.

Principle one of the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics declares official statistics as a public good to provide an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society, serving the government, with data about the economic, demographic, social and environmental situation.

This uninformed position of the Treasury to outsource statistics is not new. It was once mooted in 1995 by some white conservatives. They did not trust a liberated bureaucracy. The Treasury is echoing this tired nonsense.

It is oblivious of the Statistics Act which compels the statistician-general to act without fear or favour in delivering on all 10 principles.

It is these deeply worrisome tendencies that should leave South Africans sleepless as the dream for an entrepreneurial state advocated by the likes of Muzzucato drifts into a distant mirage.

South Africa is industrialised on the back of the framework of an entrepreneurial state.

At the centre of such a state is the science of state statistics.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician general and the former head of Statistics South Africa.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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