"Every dollar invested on the research organization has 310 to 4200 times return value"
Interview with Ariunzaya A., Chairperson of National Statistics Office of Mongolia.
-You have recently attended UN 49th Statistical Commission. In my understanding, discussion on statistics providing more accurate and reliable data to public, publication and policy makers has been held at UN level. In this regard, I would like to ask as a first question how often or at what level statistics is used at the political level. What is the general world view on it?
-We all knew “Millennium Development Goal” implemented during 2000-2015. There were difficulties in term of data required for evaluating the implementation of this MDG was unclear, there were many possible data sources can be used, yet data quality was not good at global level, we have learned big lesson from it. Therefore, during approval of the “Sustainable development goal” in 2015, UN, international organizations and countries reached general agreement, which was that it is better using evidence based statistics for evaluating the implementation of SDG.
Conference that I have recently attended organized under the motto or the call “Better data, better life”. In previous years, focus was on data producers and users, but this year attention was on using official statistics for policy making. Which is signaling or inferring something. In short, conceptual approach is that if “better data” is available, “better policy and decisions” will be made, thus “better life for the people”. Developments of UN member countries varies and most of the countries are in poor, middle or below middle income categories. For finding optimal solution or answering the question how to overcome current development level and reach better development, reliable and comprehensive statistics is imperative. Accurate and reliable statistics is not only monitoring tool for social and economic development of the country also it is a protection tool for environment and biological species.
-However, in Mongolia, are government decisions based on statistics?
-I cannot give definitive yes or no answer this question. Because, a country can develop only through having its own consistent or sustainable development policy or vision. In finding such policy and finding optimal solution for the issues, evidence based statistics must be used. Today, it is used at certain level, but not at sufficient level. This situation is not only present in Mongolia. Main input or condition for successful and efficient policy implementation is facts, research and evidence or to say statistics. Therefore, shifting towards research based policy development is needed. To do so, it is important to increase and improve the activities of official statistics, cooperation between stakeholders and contributions of policy research organizations.
-What is the reason that political and government decisions are not based statistics?
-This exact issue has discussed in session which I was leading. In this session, Vice president and director of Policy planning department of United Nations Economic and Social Council; which organizes high level meeting of government leaders of the country, was on one side and statisticians were on other side, and made discussion on how to make suggestions to the data exchange between government organization for providing statistical infrastructure and optimal statistics use in the framework of Sustainable development. It is mentioned more often in the meeting that as quantitative information and ecosystems change, statisticians, aside from producers of statistics, are becoming managers of the information. On the other side, it can be simplified that politicians have to make fast decision from big data.
However, evaluating such big data for its reliability and accuracies requires lot of time. We are introducing and disseminating necessary social and economic indicators and statistical information to politicians at regular basis or frequency. Unfortunately, there is not many politicians who can understand such information. For them, more processed information or to say information which has easy conclusion, comprehensive and subject specific information is needed. Therefore, in recent years, focus is on providing more simple and clear statistical information. And, we need not only to make the information more comprehensive during the processing, also need to make analysis and conclusion on it, then explain it by relating to specific subject. Statisticians trying to explain their facts, research survey and data by conventional approach or being unable to interpret them comprehensive enough can be causes of “wasting the time” as politicians determine. Nonetheless, I would like to note one point here. We can conclude that, in recent years, decisions without research and incoherence policy decisions are main causes of wasting country capacity, resources, labor and economy. Decisions without real estimation research and not for long term are the actions to solve the issues for very short period. It is like extinguishing the fire without eliminating cause or source of fire, which will further deteriorate the situation. For economy, this leads to continuous loss, and possibly to social oppositions.
-For Mongolia, there is tendency not to believe in statistics. Probably, staff changes in government organization after every election might have happened to your organization. What is your thoughts and opinion on this?
-Statistical organization has specialized, independent and neutral activities. Thus, compared to other government organization, staff changes after political election happens outside of our organization. Even in Law of Statistics, it is stated that organization shall provide and disseminate statistical information based on specialized issues, approved methods and methodology, standards, design, content and structure, independently from policy makers at regular frequency. Policy makers can take part in defining new indicators that is needed or viewed as important and request it, so as provide budget to produce it. But, policy makers will not take part in determining how the indicators produced. Specialized skills, independent and neutrality are reliable fundamental principles in statistical system. Changing one number in statistics will undermine other numbers and whole thing become unreliable and waste of time. Since history is written by those numbers, one “wrong” number will be easily detected. Therefore, it is impossible to change any number by any side party intervention. Statistics is not exact science like mathematics. Rather, statistical and research organizations have not stabilized and strengthened in terms of finance and experts.
"Politicians who understand statistical information are not many. For them, more processed comprehensive statistical information is needed "
-Also, media and policy makers do not have much cooperation experience with statistical and research organization, and making decisions based on research has not become common or regular practice. In such situation, reality is that statistical and research organizations face challenges of not being comprehensive. Most obvious example is not believing or doubting in official statistics, or sometimes try to refute it during the press conferences of monthly reports. Ironic or say horrific case happened for average wage indicator and its definition. Citizen register their wage income and pay their social security voluntary. From the organization handling the social protection activities, statistics office receives labor income registration, calculates and disseminates average salary by using this registration and international methodology. Not only average salary, also this indicator is being disseminated as disaggregated by categories of government – private, ownership classification, classification of number workers, industrial activities, sectors, location and even for gender differences. A person who have read this reports could learn how many people earning similar amount and how many people earning different amount.
However, people view and act as they must be paid by amount same as average wage in each quarter. It is observed that people reflect to the indicators, which has direct effect on their life, directly and likely not to believe in them. On the contrary, this indicates people knowledge over methodology how this indicator is calculated and data, further, overall level of mathematical knowledge. Therefore, rather than defecting the people’s knowledge, we are focusing on organizing training and workshops explaining statistical methods and technics in short and simple.
-Main development policy departments of strong nations are research institutes...?
-From the practices of highly developed countries like USA, Germany, France, Israel, Korea and Japan, policy research organizations are diverse and budgeted from government. This supports social and economic development and successful results are easily observable. More the institutes and research organization, there will be more solutions, new ideas and more options. Only with more institutes, policy can have more options, more realistic and efficient. Specially in recent years, countries are using policy research organization more often to strengthen their political and economic positions. Investment on research is one of the highest return investment with the highest cost saving. In this regard, there is one specific research done by Canadian International Development Research Center. This research concluded that several developing countries which has invested in policy research institutes had return rate of 310-4200 times per dollar. No other activity has such high return rate.
However, in Mongolia, under the budget constraint, research institutes and organizations were shut down and only organization responsible for official statistics once merger with registration organization. Also, it has been 4 years since shut down of Faculty of Statistics, which had 60 years of history educating expert human resource. Today, it is time for data of official statistics being collected and processed with small number of staff and very low budget. In the future, developing not only activities of Official statistics of Mongolia, also national policy research institute would be key to better economy, enable transition from idea based policy to evidence based policy and smarter government.