Newsmaker: Numbers game

2017-01-22 06:10
Statistician General Pali Lehohla addressing a media briefing on the Labour Market. Picture: Elmond Jiyane

Statistician General Pali Lehohla addressing a media briefing on the Labour Market. Picture: Elmond Jiyane

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Pali Lehohla was in his element this week at the Cape Town International Conference Centre, at home among the data nerds at the first-ever United Nations Data Forum.

The country’s statistician-general, easily spotted in the crowd with his idiosyncratic hairstyle, hosted the four-day data conference attended by economists, statisticians and politicians from around the world.

They were all there to craft a global action plan for sustainable data gathering.

In his address on Tuesday, Lehohla (59), who has led StatsSA since 2000, shared lessons from his most catastrophic failure to illustrate the need for accurate data that was accessible and free for all.

It was in 2002 and the organisation issued inaccurate consumer price index (CPI) figures.

“For 14 months, I miscalculated the consumer price index. That was very costly. Treasury was running a crisis at the time, and I was running a crisis to try fix this mistake,” he said.

“I only learned in 2014 that that mistake was costly. It cost government R50 billion in losses the R10 billion to the private sector... It was a massive mistake.”

Lehohla is candid in revealing the cause of the blunder: elements of arrogance, deception and ignorance.

“All those things came together at the same time. At the level of arrogance, this information never reached me for a period of time and I understand that there were people knocking at the door of Stats SA saying there’s a problem.

"It never came through to me,” he told City Press afterwards.

“Of course as this arrogance builds up it turned to deception. The users who raised this were badly treated. There was arrogance on my side particularly.”

Lehohla said he was “driven by passion for change” and “moved” a knowledgeable economist running economic statistics to a different section.

“First, she raised the matter of data sources and I think her soft voice was drowned by the arrogant noise. Secondly, we moved her from economic statistics.”

When they became aware of the error, he approached the woman to fix it, and she did a “fantastic job”.

Lehohla, who was born in Lesotho and studied economics and statistics at the University of Lesotho before doing his postgraduate sociology studies in Ghana, is affectionately called “doc” by his staff because of his honorary doctorate from Stellenbosch University.

He says he learnt a lot from the mistake.

“That experience is very important. It is not something you can push under the carpet. You shouldn’t. In fact what was very important was to be open about it and say how you will fix it,” he said.

“I told my colleagues at the UN Statistics Commission that we have to bring our sad lessons to ourselves. It’s not the matter of shame but the matter of contributing to our community of practice...

"Self-reporting enables us to discuss without fear those things that fall in our blind spots when we make mistakes.”

Lehohla said the government also learnt lessons, and “provided a body of resources financially and otherwise to build a statistics office” which they desperately needed.

A more current problem StatsSA has are the constant changes in municipal boundaries which means his statisticians are unable to compile child death figures per municipality which can be compared over time.

The fact that child mortality data cannot be extrapolated to municipal level has a serious impact on service delivery, as well as the deliverability of the UN’s sustainable development goals.

A spike in deaths in a single municipality cannot be detected and therefore cannot be fixed.

StatsSA is now trying to build the 2012 changes in municipal boundaries into the current system to solve this.

Another major goal StatsSA is working on is to push statistics and their significance into the public domain.

“I think to a large extent we have been successful in getting StatsSA on the map. It took quite a lot of energy. During the 2011 census, I had to put a yellow suit on for 700 days to drive the message home,” he said.

Lehohla also wants citizens to understand how statistics touch lives. The agency is planning a public awareness campaign about how data is collected and used using the voices and themes that people understand.


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Read more on:    statssa  |  pali lehohla  |  cape town  |  economic activity
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