The Z Factor: NDA: No Data Available?

All through this month, Union ministers have been submitting before the nation that they don’t know most things about most things: There is no data on how many migrant workers died during the lockdown, nor even how many doctors and healthcare workers on Covid-19 duty have died, how many farmers committed suicide, or how many people lost jobs. As I watched the Modi government do this each day, I was reminded of my time as a policy consultant in the Middle East last year.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s hopes of modernising his kingdom have spawned a multi-billion-dollar consulting mega-market, bringing in experts from across various domains of policymaking from all over the world. On one of my projects with an illustrious team there, we were advising a ministry in the Saudi government on revamping itself. The task included reallocating existing resources for maximum efficiency – for instance, deploying more firemen to the most fire-prone regions and laying off policemen if fewer of them were needed.

As one would imagine, this was a task that required a lot of reliable data on everything from crime to the incidence of fires. Yet, data was the one thing that no one in the ministry seemed to have. As my frustrated colleague, a former Colonel of the Canadian Air Force, grumbled to me after yet another meeting with a team of Saudi bureaucrats, “Nobody wants to tell us what time of day it is, let alone share crime stats!”

Lack of transparency on basic data is not unusual in authoritarian regimes. Data means accountability. If officers collect data, it opens them up to questions on their performance: Why were more people robbed in their region than elsewhere? Why have fires been more frequent in the last couple of years? Why are death rates in their area higher than the national average?

In some cases, no data can also mean no work and no expense: As our own government asked Parliament earlier this month, if you don’t know how many migrant workers died, why would you need to pay compensation to any of their families?

Without institutional safeguards or legal requirements, officials in many authoritarian regimes refuse to maintain comprehensive databases – or, when asked, simply cook up the data (an art which I found many in the Middle East to be adept at).

And fake data is much worse than no data: It creates an untrue version of reality and leads to misguided policymaking. Governments often paint a rosier picture of reality to keep their people calm, but that also means that they end up spending where they shouldn’t and hold money back from where it is most needed.

Sometimes, data is tampered with because it is subject to competing incentives. On the one hand, rising crime data would reflect poorly on the law and order situation in a particular region. Yet, on the other hand, if crime has fallen significantly, police officers worry that they may be laid off – or be transferred to more difficult and dangerous locations. If governments in some regions receive more funds from the central government because they are poorer, they have an incentive to continuously show themselves as being poorer.

We are a country obsessed with numbers – from the grades of our kids, to the salaries of our peers, the mileage of our cars and the price of tomatoes. So, you may be understandably distressed that the government has no data. But it could actually get worse: If the government decides to cook up data, how confident are you of being able to smell a rat?

(c) 2020, Deccan Herald