Florian Blum and Rohini Pande argue for opening more data so that public policymaking can be improved..
Recent experiences, especially from Scandinavian countries, show that opening administrative data sources can substantially improve public policymaking. In this article, Pande and Blum contend that while investment in data infrastructure is needed to produce and use statistics, the decision to collect and open data also depends on political economy considerations. Such forces are particularly strong in India and pose a major constraint on effective policy reform.
They point how Denmark opened up data sources but others like Tanzania etc have taken steps to limit data:
This has mattered for how policy works for the Danish public. In a 2011 paper, Kleven et al. used administrative data to show that tax evasion was much higher among self-reporters compared with those whose earnings were recorded by third parties. This led the Danish government to implement a major tax reform, expanding third-party reporting to financial institutions. And that will likely lead to fairer implementation and more money in the coffer to fund public programmes. In the US, access to Internal Revenue Services administrative files recently led Harvard researchers to provide definitive evidence on the importance of neighbourhood quality for lifelong opportunities enjoyed by Americans.
But even as the arc of history bends toward open data, we have seen countries move in the opposite direction – again, acting on political motivations. In March of this year, the Tanzanian parliament, facing an October election, introduced a law requiring any published data to be endorsed by the National Bureau of Statistics, essentially giving the government the ability to bury reports by the press and research by scholars. While it is hard to imagine this law gaining traction, the very fact that it passed suggests that some in power wish to keep a tight hold on data as elections approach. Furthermore, even among those wealthy countries whose administrative datasets could feed hugely beneficial research, many (example, Japan) have largely restricted access.
Across the world, States that want to redistribute fairly and finance public goods effectively – that want to be friendly to outside analysis and unfriendly to cheats – require data.
Returning to Pakistan’s tax administrators, the data that would make their jobs easier, not to mention more productive, was there at some point. Sums were paid into an account, they just weren’t treated as data. We believe that if you recognise data and its value, collect it and make it accessible, the ecosystem will take over. The availability of data will spur analysis, creating further feedback loops: more information on a problem, and a political debate about it, can accelerate progress toward its treatment.
The tricky part is creating coalitions of policymakers, researchers and citizen groups that will succeed in instituting such data systems. The political economy of data production responds to external as well as internal pressures. Come September, the UN should not just announce the SDGs but create clear mechanisms to recognise and reward countries that institute robust infrastructure for public release of relevant administrative data. Countries such as Denmark that use their statistics agencies as clearinghouses should be lauded, while others that use theirs as censors should be shamed.
Data collection and sharing is a huge issue for most countries. But then with all these big data kinds of ideas emerging and gaining pace, one could still work around without having the so called administrative data..