Ad­min­is­ter­ing the right medicine for Stats SA’s delin­quency

The Star Early Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - Dr Pali Le­hohla is Statis­ti­cian-Gen­eral of SA Pali Le­hohla

THE EVO­LU­TION of ac­count­abil­ity in the body politic of state­hood has cat­a­pulted statis­tics as a de­ci­sion sup­port and ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem to the high table of de­ci­sion-mak­ing. The evo­lu­tion of sta­tis­ti­cal prac­tices of­fers a pub­lic win­dow through which the lived ta­pes­try of so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic con­di­tions in space and time can be ob­served, known, un­der­stood, acted upon through a for­ward-look­ing plan and pub­licly mo­bilised through a po­lit­i­cal pro­gramme for chang­ing the liv­ing con­di­tions of the pop­u­lace for the bet­ter.

Early on in my ca­reer, I was clear about the peck­ing or­der of pri­or­i­ties in sta­tis­ti­cal prac­tice.

I or­dered them as fol­lows: first and fore­most to be a chief statis­ti­cian you had to be a statis­ti­cian and ex­cel­lent at what you do; sec­ond, you had to mas­ter tech­nol­ogy and un­der­stand its role in the life of a statis­tics of­fice and sys­tem; and third, you needed to ap­pre­ci­ate the com­plex­ity of sta­tis­ti­cal pro­duc­tion sys­tems – it’s all about in­bound and out­bound lo­gis­tics.

Imag­ine a ma­chin­ery re­quired for a pop­u­la­tion cen­sus where you are ex­pected within a pe­riod of two months to re­cruit in ex­cess of 150 000-strong, se­lect and train them for a pe­riod of two weeks, de­ploy them over three weeks to 15 mil­lion house­holds across the length and breadth of South Africa, pay and de­com­mis­sion them.

Thus, with re­mark­able speed, within six weeks the tor­nado has come and gone. This is a mam­moth task.

Fourth, you need to get the ad­min­is­tra­tion right, and fifth, fi­nally en­sure that you un­der­stand the pol­i­tics with­out be­ing em­broiled in the pol­i­tics.

Steer­ing clear of pol­i­tics

Im­por­tantly, steer clear of par­ti­san pol­i­tics – they can be very se­duc­tive.

South African leg­is­la­tors en­sured that there is a law that draws the bound­ary and de­fines the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween statis­tics and pol­i­tics. This law has served us well for 17 years and is now un­der review.

In time, par­tic­u­larly af­ter hav­ing had in shame to visit the Au­di­tor-Gen­eral of South Africa for three suc­ces­sive years on Stats SA’s au­dits, I re­alised that I had to re-or­der the pri­or­i­ties.

End of au­dits each fi­nan­cial year was a painful ex­pe­ri­ence as I would try as hard I could to con­vince Shauket Fakie that his au­dit out­comes could not be right in re­spect of Stats SA.

Af­ter a num­ber of dis­ap­point­ments from qual­i­fied au­dits, I found my­self ask­ing a dif­fer­ent set of ques­tions.

Ja­cob Ryten, a renowned and dis­tin­guished statis­ti­cian and oc­to­ge­nar­ian who re­tired from Statis­tics Canada, muses about the role of statis­tics in mod­ern pub­lic life and it was not about statis­tics that I lis­tened at­ten­tively, but about ad­min­is­tra­tion.

He said to me that Martin Wilk, who was his for­mer boss – re­mem­bered as pos­si­bly the best statis­ti­cian in Canada – ar­gued con­sis­tently that it is through your good ad­min­is­tra­tion that your worth will be ad­mired.

From then on, Statis­tics Canada played a cru­cial role in set­ting and con­tribut­ing sig­nif­i­cantly in the devel­op­ment of statewide man­age­ment prac­tices.

It was this part that I re­alised was the medicine I needed for Stats SA’s ha­bit­ual delin­quency.

What did we do then? We paid at­ten­tion to pro­ject man­age­ment and fo­cused on grow­ing our own tim­ber through train­ing, for im­ple­ment­ing plan­ning and fol­low­ing pro­ject-man­age­ment prac­tices.

We es­tab­lished a pro­gramme of­fice for con­tent-based co-or­di­na­tion of plan­ning. This strat­egy paid off and thus el­e­vated ad­min­is­tra­tion to sec­ond pri­or­ity. Sud­denly, qual­i­fied au­dits dis­ap­peared. What about the first pri­or­ity? This went into un­der­stand­ing pol­i­tics…

I re­call haz­ard­ing that the day the State of the Na­tion Ad­dress drew ev­i­dence from the na­tional statis­tics sys­tem, we will know that we have paid the right at­ten­tion to na­tional pri­or­i­ties.

By the time we pre­pared for Cen­sus 2011, our pri­or­i­ties were fo­cused on the essence of the Na­tional Devel­op­ment Plan (NDP), and af­ter its adop­tion, the re­sults of the cen­sus were re­tooled to fo­cus the na­tion’s at­ten­tion on the NDP.

We have sub­se­quently and con­sis­tently, as we keep the na­tion in­formed through num­bers, fo­cused the ef­fort on the tar­gets of the NDP, thus mak­ing the po­lit­i­cal im­per­a­tive top level and the first pri­or­ity that should keep the na­tion awake.

Three days be­fore they are pub­lished, the au­di­tor-gen­eral usu­ally con­venes a meet­ing with the ex­ec­u­tive au­thor­ity (min­is­ter) and the head of de­part­ment (di­rec­tor-gen­eral) to con­sider au­dit out­comes.

That should rep­re­sent a de­fin­i­tive out­come.

But this I con­fess with great trep­i­da­tion, be­cause for once in the 2012/13 out­comes the white smoke from the “con­clave” had turned to black the next day, much to our sur­prise and dis­ap­point­ment.

The then-min­is­ter in the Pres­i­dency, Trevor Manuel, would ask the au­di­tor­gen­eral whether the au­di­tor-gen­eral was re­spond­ing to the cof­fee he was served the pre­vi­ous day and won­dered what could have been added to it which made the white smoke from the “con­clave” to so dra­mat­i­cally turn black just overnight.

My fi­nance staff could not be­lieve this and took it so per­son­ally that the tears were just un­stop­pable. This is how com­mit­ted the or­gan­i­sa­tion is to duty.

It was again on Mon­day, July 24, where Min­is­ter Jeff Radebe and I were briefed by the au­di­tor-gen­eral on Stats SA’s au­dit out­comes.

The “con­clave” has now be­come ha­bit­ual for Stats SA’s re­leased white smoke. What is so im­por­tant about this?

As I stepped out of the “con­clave”, there were ladies who greeted me with great en­thu­si­asm, telling me about what they had heard from oth­ers about how ma­jes­tic, beau­ti­ful and unique the Isi­balo House of Stats SA is.

I said to them the de­sign idea was home-grown and its cen­tral fea­ture was to un­apolo­get­i­cally im­bue African math­e­mat­i­cal achieve­ments of yes­ter­year and in­spire the con­quest of the fu­ture through science. They ap­plauded.

This spirit ran through the pro­ject right from the be­gin­ning when Stats SA en­tered into a pub­lic pri­vate part­ner­ship (PPP) for this new build­ing, which it oc­cu­pied in Septem­ber last year at Free­dom Park.

It took un­der 40 months from the start of ne­go­ti­a­tions to sod turn­ing, build­ing and oc­cu­pa­tion. This was a mas­sive mod­ern and state-of-the-art build­ing.

It is through state-wide ad­min­is­tra­tion mod­els that Stats SA de­liv­ers value and change, which it has shown through suc­cess­ful pub­lic pri­vate part­ner­ships.

Part­ner­ships the way to go

The pro­ject cov­ered 65 000 square me­tres of let­table space and it is lo­cated in more than 100 000 square me­tres of ter­raced land. What is more im­por­tant is not only the speed of com­ple­tion of the pro­ject within 28 months, but what is cen­trally its gov­er­nance amid a litany of gov­er­nance im­pon­der­ables plagu­ing our land.

The PPP was led di­rectly from a hawkeyed po­si­tion of the deputy di­rec­tor-gen­eral of Stats SA.

This was com­ple­mented through com­bined ef­forts with the De­part­ment of Pub­lic Works, the Na­tional Trea­sury, Tsh­wane Mu­nic­i­pal­ity, the SAPS and the De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs.

Stats SA has un­equiv­o­cally demon­strated that PPPs are pos­si­ble to de­liver.

In a murky world, where the con­struc­tion in­dus­try is re­plete with al­le­ga­tions per­ceived and real of cor­rupt prac­tices, Stats SA with its R1.4 bil­lion build­ing has come out of this pro­ject with a clean au­dit.

This was not achieved through arm­chair de­liv­ery.

It took the de­ploy­ment of the right peo­ple from Stats SA to this pro­ject and they con­sis­tently demon­strated a pro­found ethic and com­mit­ment to the in­ter­ests of the peo­ples of South Africa and the state.

But above all, it took a mind that re­fuses to for­get to re­mem­ber – pro­ject di­rec­tor Akhtari Hen­ning pro­vided that dis­tin­guished lead­er­ship and has thus given PPPs a good name. PPPs are the way to go and they are doable.

So, in­deed, Martin Wilk was cor­rect in his in­junc­tion to Ryten and Fel­legi that yes, statis­tics count for a lot.

How­ever, it is through de­liv­er­ing statewide ad­min­is­tra­tion mod­els that the Statis­tics Of­fice and Sys­tem de­liv­ers value and change.

Stats SA is up to the task and Par­lia­ment all round, with­out ex­cep­tion, sup­ported the Bud­get vote of Stats SA.

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