Islands Business, 15 March 2013.
By Professor Wadan Narsey
The public readily engage in a heated debate on politics, while ignoring changes silently taking place in something as mundane as the “public availability of information”. Yet the latter can be far more important for our people’s welfare than exciting politics.
In every Pacific country, computerization (both hardware and software) has charged ahead over the last two decades. Computer prices have plummeted; processing power and storage capacity has increased a billion times; a small lap-top is the equivalent of a roomful of computers forty years ago; there are amazing software applications; and the Internet and mobile revolutions give access to the world’s libraries and information.
Word-processing allows reports to be written, corrected, formatted, spell-checked and printed.
Spread-sheets, with more than a million rows and 16 thousand columns of data, make complex mathematical, financial, logical and graphical functions, so easy, menu driven, requiring just a few clicks.
Database software allows for the easy menu-driven processing of massive amounts of data, once the domain only of bureaus of statistics and armies of statisticians who had to write complex programs.
All this “firepower” is available for the price of a good TV set or a gold necklace or a holiday abroad.
So why is it that for most government departments,
(a) the real information provided has gone backward s– in some cases by more than 30 years?
(b) their websites are colourful and glossy, but provide very little real information?
(c) already printed public information, is not provided through websites in a ready-to-use form?
The Fiji examples I give here (some bad and some good) are relevant for other PICs as well, as also may be an initiative I suggest.
Ministry of Labour
A few years ago, as part of my ECREA study on Just Wages for Fiji, I read through 40 years of Annual Reports by the Ministry of Labour. I was dismayed by one unexpected aspect – the massive deterioration over the four decades of real information provided.
In the (colonial) sixties and post-independence seventies, the Ministry of Labour (and most Government ministries) did not have access to their own computers for analyzing data, tabulating or report writing.
Data was analyzed using calculators, while Annual Reports were typed on manual typewriters, by “typists” (remember that extinct species?).
Yet those early Annual Reports were full of useful comprehensive data and analysis.
Not any more. Have a look at recent Ministry of Labour Reports (they are all available in the Fiji National University Library).
The actual production of most government Annual Reports are now outsourced to private companies, who take whatever data and text they are given by the Ministry, and turn out beautiful glossy reports.
They are full of strategic plans, visions, missions, philosophies, etc., but devoid of any real information, which the public really need to understand what is happening in that area, or to assess the ministry’s work by their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
Like all government departments, Labour also has a glossy website, full of corporate plans, press releases, speeches and photos of Ministers, and wonderful enunciations of “spiritual values”.
But this website contains little useful information pertaining to the terms and conditions of work actually done by Fiji’s employees which is what the Ministry of Labor should be concerned about.
The last Annual Labour Report on their website is for 2007 (five years ago), and even that, astonishingly, gives you just the front cover!
Yet the Ministry of Labour (and all its branches throughout Fiji) is full of computers, software and data, all available for analysis.
It has dozens of staff with degrees, diplomas and certificates, which should enable them to analyze the data and present solid analytical useful reports for the stakeholders. Yet they don’t. Their regional data is not even collated centrally despite their usefulness.
Does this Ministry of Labour think that taxpayers who pay their salaries, are not entitled to such relevant information? This is certainly not what I would expect from the current Minister, a former CEO of TPAF and a good USP graduate.
Researchers could do a PhD analyzing the “empty” KPIs in the Ministry of Labour’s Corporate Plans.
They are a typical example of “managerial revolutions” that nearly all Fiji’s government departments have been taken through in the last two decades (often by donors), converting genuinely productive technical people into paper shuffling and meeting-attending “managers”, of this and that.
Many other such departments
Have a look at the Department of Police, which also does not put on its website any real time series information on crimes, suicides etc., although press releases often selectively quote some statistic or two.
The data is all there of course, within the Department, but sitting on someone’s desk or computer.
Even when requested (as I recently did for information on suicides and attempted suicides in 2010 and 2011), why do those in power refuse to give the data to the public, let alone make it freely available to anyone who wants it, on their website? The frequent response is: Sir, what do you want it for? I will have to ask my superiors. I will call you back. (They never do.)
Are decisions being consciously made by those in power, to deny the public the relevant data, in case it throws their performance in a bad light?
Or are they simply unaware that giving the public all relevant data (that does not divulge individual information) is a necessary condition for their government to claim to be open, transparent and accountable to the tax-payers?
There could be several PhD theses, examining the websites of all government departments, for their usefulness, transparency and accountability, given the information that they all have or should have, that the public should be made aware of.
The Fiji National Provident Fund
The Fiji National Provident Fund is another sad example of a public organization which has gone backwards as a provider of data and useful information. This regression has even more serious implications for public welfare, given the centrality of FNPF to Fiji people’s lives and economy.
Once upon a time, the FNPF Annual Reports and website used to have numerous useful data series on the operations of the FNPF – its membership profile, contributions, investments, earnings, etc.
It is dismaying that most of this information has now been removed from the FNPF website and most are not even available in their Annual Reports.
Why has the FNPF removed all this information from their website, in a period when massive restructuring of pensions and fund investment is taking place, with major implications for the welfare of FNPF contributors and pensioners?
Was it a decision by the Board or the management? Or both, given how their functions have been astonishingly merged in recent years? (another PhD).
This trend of deliberate reduction of information for the public, suggests that the FNPF is being very frugal with the truth when it claims to be transparent and accountable to their members.
Health is better
In contrast, the Ministry of Health’s website and Annual Reports are full of useful professional information on the health status of Fiji.
They even contain sensible and useful KPIs AND relevant statistics by which the Ministry’s work can be judged (and yes, you can).
However, their last Annual Report is only for 2010, AND the Health Reports also contain less and less real information, compared to what used to be printed three decades ago.
Their website does not contain the large amounts of useful time series health data, that no doubt sits somewhere in the Ministry, gathering dust or in some electronic slumber awaiting liberation.
Several years ago, there was a multi-million dollar AusAID Institution Strengthening Project that had glorious objectives of making all current Health data available at the click of a button.
Here’s another PhD investigating why the information objectives of this valuable aid project have largely not been realized, despite the millions spent on computers, software and training.
Reserve Bank of Fiji also better, but…
The Reserve Bank of Fiji is an excellent model for public authorities as an information provider.
The RBF website provides up-to-date statistics not only relating to its work as a central bank (i.e. on the monetary and financial variables and institutions that are directly in its domain), but also other economic data such as from the Fiji Bureau of Statistics or business expectations surveys.
The RBF Annual Reports are professionally prepared and timely.
But the RBF website has three minor weaknesses, two of which can be easily addressed.
First, they could provide more comprehensive analysis and public information on the insurance industry, of great interest to the currently vulnerable consumers.
Second, the RBF could use its alleged powers of oversight over the FNPF to demand and publish the information that the public need and want (although this might be a quick way for the current Governor to commit Hari Kari).
Third, the RBF website could provide their voluminous data, in a more usable form.
RBF data not directly usable
Analysts and researchers (even secondary school students) want data which can be easily downloaded (perhaps as a spread-sheet), which can then be manipulated, analyzed, graphed etc.
Unfortunately, the RBF website data is only in “pdf” format, which is not immediately usable by the general public. This is also a weakness of the Fiji Bureau of Statistics website.
Of course, the pdf data can be read and retyped into spread-sheets. But why impose this burden unnecessarily on the public, creating another possibility of error?
The RBF (or FBS) data is already “public”, and the only issue is the form in which the public can access it.
International organizations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, UN and Australian Bureau of Statistics are now facilitating not just accessibility but also usability.
Anyone, anywhere in the world with access to the Internet, can download WB data on spreadsheets, on thousands of economic, social and political indicators, for nearly all countries, some not even available in the countries themselves (just google “WB database”).
This is a genuinely revolutionary initiative by the WB, empowering hundreds of millions of people around the world in using hard data. Of course, such data also has its politics, as no data is totally “neutral”: all data makes you look at the world through its lenses. But as with all information in the world: USER BEWARE.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics even allows the public (once you have registered as a User)) access to their massive databases of raw data, such as the Australian Census, to produce very specific tables you might want (for example, the incomes or occupations of Australian residents born in Fiji).
What an extraordinary service! These downloadable databases are “heaven on earth” for inquisitive research students and academics.
Public sector organizations like the RBF and FBS can follow the examples of WB and ABS, and make available their data on spread-sheets or other directly usable formats.
Some PICs give out annual prizes for the “best annual report” by organisations (private and public), usually rewarding a few companies.
But these exercises have two weaknesses. First, they depend on voluntary entry by firms who will only enter if they think they have got a good chance of winning (i.e. “bad” organizations will NOT enter).
Second, and more important, they do not subject all the important public organisations to scrutiny in the interests of the taxpayers, so that “Warning Bells” can be rung, if necessary.
There needs to be an annual exercise by some high-powered Committee, assessing the Annual Reports and websites of ALL government departments and entities in which substantial tax-payers funds are involved (can you imagine some school telling the Ministry of Education- sorry, Sir, we don’t want to sit the national examination this year- our performance may not be too good!).
The Committee could be drawn from the Auditor General’s Office, Institutes of Management and Accountants, Transparency International, and the universities.
The criteria should include timeliness of the reports, accuracy and comprehensiveness of information provided (current and time series), accuracy and usefulness of enterprise accounts (audited), gender balance of senior management etc., whatever may be the matters of concern to the tax-payers.
The Committee must publish the full results for the tax-payers to see- with grades of A, B, C and Fail Grades, and specific grades for each criterion so that enterprises (and tax-payers) know exactly where they have to improve (exactly the way Literacy and Numeracy test results in Education are supposed to be used by students and school).
Who knows, the public listing of “Fail” grades might pre-empt further financial disasters like the National Bank of Fiji (although it might too late for a few Fiji public enterprises).
You might even reduce the need for “Whistleblowers” and “Whistleblower legislation”.