Stats SA at ‘tipping point’ without significant government cash injection

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Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) has in no uncertain terms declared their dire need of a significant cash injection from the government — if not, the council will withdraw support for official statistics and resign.

In a statement released by the South African Statistics Council on Tuesday 18 February, it stated that Stats SA would be in big trouble without necessary funding and South Africa would, in turn, “begin a downward spiral”. 

South African Statistics Council Chairperson, David Everatt said that in 2015, StatsSA had R160 million stripped from its budget and a freeze on all posts was imposed by the government. 

“Both have remained in place since that point. By early 2020, the situation has reached crisis point,” said Everatt. 

“The warning lights are flashing red,” he said in desperation.

Stats SA ‘asset-stripped’ by government 

The vacancy rate has climbed to almost 20% — which means that every fifth position is vacant, and many staff are thus taking on work that should be done by others; working a six or seven day week is common. 

Everatt explained that the freeze on posts means that no promotions are possible, and no vacancies can, therefore, be filled. As a result, ambitious staff look outside Stats SA, and young graduates no longer see StatsSA as an employer of choice for their post-graduate training. 

“Stats SA is being asset-stripped because it cannot offer any type of career prospects for any member of staff — because the government refuses to change its approach to the budget and freeze on posts,” he said. 

Stats SA at ‘tipping point’

Everatt did not shy away from the core issue, saying outright, that sustaining Stats SA “requires a significant financial injection”. 

“If Treasury [National Treasury] fails immediately to fund Statistics SA adequately — like Humpy-Dumpty — it may not be able to put it together again, and decades of building the institution post-1994 will have been wasted,” he added. 

“The statement said that — warning lights are flashing red — and government needs to act swiftly if South Africa are to retain a robust and innovative Stats SA. If Stats SA is not able to fill posts with skilled people, keep sample sizes up and innovate, the council will be forced to withdraw support for official statistics. This is the very worst option for everyone in South Africa – but council either endorses the release of data everyone can trust, or council stops because we cannot endorse data we mistrust,” he added. 

Stats SA should not be ‘punished’ by government 

The statement went on to say that Stats SA is not a “state capture” bail-out candidate. Everatt explained that the entity receives regular clean audits and enjoys widespread public trust. 

“It is very difficult to understand why a respected, reliable and important institution, that plays by the rules and is praised by the auditor-general, is in effect punished by the government while those deeply implicated in state capture receive bail-outs of massive proportions,” he said.  

Stats SA has received once-off emergency funds — in 2020 Stats SA have been promised R46 million — but these once-off band-aids do not stop the inevitable decline in the institution, and thus in the quality of official statistics.

Forced to consider cost-saving measures

Everatt further explained that due to forced cost-saving cuts, efficiencies have been exhausted because of the hole in its budget. He said that sample sizes are being cut, which over time will lead to wider error ranges. 

“Activities are having to be ranked, and some simply dropped, such as the self-reported poverty survey — apparently ‘too expensive’ in this climate. Government is now in danger of damaging the core business of the organisation, even when its financial needs — some R200 million — are tiny compared to the massive bail-outs being offered elsewhere, and with Census 2021 very close,” said Everatt.

Here’s why they are valuable 

Stats SA is a globally recognised centre of excellence for producing official statistics — they are also the only source of official statistics in South Africa. 

It has both kept in touch with or led best practice, notably in developing countries, across a wide range of areas, from the use of technology to data visualisation and beyond. It has made major efficiencies by moving to digital collection. 

It consistently produces key statistics that allow the private sector, government, international agencies and others to understand the society and economy, plan their work, and monitor progress. 

“If Stats SA cannot produce accurate official statistics, rating agencies will punish South Africa, international investors will turn elsewhere, the domestic business will lack reliable planning data, and a downward spiral will be inevitable,” he added. 

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