The Manila Times

Data problem


AS a result of inadequate, scattered and sometimes unreliable data on the agricultural sector, Secretary Francis Tiu Laurel Jr. articulated the need for the reestablishment of the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) in the Department of Agriculture (DA).

The BAS and its function were absorbed by the Philippine Statistics (PSA) Authority when Republic Act (RA) 10625, otherwise known as the “Philippine Statistical Act of 2013,” was enacted during the incumbency of President Benigno Aquino Jr. (PNoy).

RA 10625 actually merged four major government statistical agencies engaged in primary data collection and the compilation of secondary data: the BAS, the Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics, the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB), and the National Statistics Office (NSO).

The main reason given for the merger was to ensure efficiency and objectivity in data collection and interpretation. In other words, it aimed to guarantee data integrity as a means of improving the planning and decision-making process in the country.

In the past, when the BAS was in existence, I personally witnessed how an Agriculture secretary lashed out at the agency’s head because data on rice production did not match the rosy picture of a bountiful harvest he was conveying to the media. The poor friend of mine who headed BAS then had no choice but to fiddle with the data collection methodology so that the situation would not be as gloomy as the result of the previous data set.

The situation must have been worse during the PNoy administration as a politician headed the DA then. He promised to attain rice self-sufficiency and was even successful in convincing the President to double the DA’s budget. Unfortunately, he proved to be a monumental failure, just like the series of Agriculture secretaries who promised to

attain rice self-sufficiency for the country with much braggadocio.

It was partly through the combined initiative of the economic managers of the PNoy administration that RA 10625 was passed. They wanted to have a more reliable and robust data set from the agricultural sector to properly monitor its performance. They thought that the BAS staff would benefit from the in-house statistical experts of the NSCB and the NSO.

And truly, they did. Unfortunately, complaints abound that the PSA is not providing real-time data on the performance of the agriculture sector, that the agricultural indicators it is using do not sometimes jive with how the sector operates, and the smallness in the sample size that makes generalization dodgy, to cite a few.

My take on this is that the PSA is doing its job of data gathering and initial data analysis well but is severely constrained by inadequate resources. For instance, it cannot cover a bigger sample size because of budget limitations, it cannot conduct more frequent surveys due to resource constraints, and it sometimes cannot precisely measure key indicators because it lacks the budget to hire agricultural and fishery experts to advise on what to survey.

I can fully empathize with the predicament of Laurel, having once served as a senior DA official under the previous administration. For instance, during our incumbency, the DA’s National Corn Program was reporting a corn self-sufficiency ratio of more than a hundred percent. It even proposed to then Agriculture Secretary William Dar that the country be allowed to export corn to neighboring Asean countries.

Upon review of the data presented to the DA Management Committee, my team discovered that the reason why we were corn self-sufficient was that they included in their calculation the volume of feed wheat the country imported as part of the total supply. Feed wheat has a low protein content and is often used as animal feed instead.

When my team did a recalculation, we found out that our local corn production could only meet 57-60 percent of corn demand. This accounted for the ever-increasing volume of feed wheat and barley imports that are used by our feed millers as substitutes for corn.

Another example was a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) report that claimed a high ratio of fish sufficiency. We found out that they violated a cardinal principle in statistics wherein instead of dividing supply by the total population, they removed nonfish eating Filipinos (which they assumed to be those 9 years old below — devoid of any scientific evidence) and then used the remainder as a divisor. The result was obviously a higher self-sufficiency ratio.

I can go on with more examples, particularly with reports coming from DA regional offices. But the more important question to raise is: Will the reestablishment of the BAS provide better agricultural statistics or data?

I am afraid that my assessment is negative. The main reason is that a re-established BAS will not be able to attract competent statisticians and economists because government compensation for them is no longer competitive with what they can get from the private sector and donor agencies.

It will just become like the current Information and Communication Technology Services unit in the DA, which generates additional employment in the government service but cannot satisfactorily fulfill its mandate because of the lack of competent and experienced personnel.

Besides having most of the staff employed under contract-of-service (meaning temporary) in the absence of regular budget plantilla, salaries for information technology personnel are not competitive with those offered by the private sector, both local and abroad.

What then is the solution? The best option is to hire a technically competent chief economist in the DA, supported by 4-5 relatively senior staff who specialize in the fields of economics, statistics, and computer science or management information systems. After this, identify point persons in various bureaus (e.g., Bureau of Plant Industry, BFAR, etc.), attached agencies (e.g., Philippine Coconut Authority, Sugar Regulatory Administration, etc.), and regional offices who will be in charge of data gathering in their respective units.

In turn, these point persons should report to the chief economist and his/her team to get instructions on the data to be collected or gathered, what form, etc., while at the same time becoming recipients of capability-building training programs to be conducted upon the determination by the chief economist.

Properly compensating the chief economist and the team will be key to attracting the most competent ones for the job. This is an administrative matter that DA management can easily find ways of successfully addressing.

Business Times




The Manila Times