Falsified census data undermines policy decision making

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 2:40am

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Nothing is more damaging for a government than losing its credibility. The Census and Statistics Department is facing a crisis after many frontline field workers were said to have fabricated answers for years in order to meet performance targets. The allegation is serious. Not only has it undermined local and international confidence in our official data, it also raises serious doubts about policy decisions and academic research based on such data. The government must thoroughly investigate the matter and restore trust in our data-collection machinery.

It is disturbing to hear that most workers make up answers to speed up the field work, such as saying someone has given up searching for a job rather than being unemployed. It is also said to be a common practice for staff to bypass subdivided flats when conducting household surveys, which may otherwise lengthen the process and affect productivity. More shocking are claims that supervisors have hushed up reports of irregularities found during random verification of field data. If these are true, the credibility of unemployment rate and other key government figures will be called into question. Under the Census and Statistics Ordinance, officers who knowingly falsify data are liable to a fine of HK$5,000 and six months in jail. The government should find out if there has been a concerted effort to cheat the system and punish accordingly.

At stake is not just the department's credibility. Policies and research based on erroneous data are as much a waste of public resources as an obstacle to the city's development. Statisticians should know there is no room for error when compiling useful data. Hong Kong will suffer if professional standards are not assured and maintained. Internationally, we are also responsible for providing reliable data for global comparison and development. The United Nations Statistics Division says that to enhance trust in official statistics, adherence to professional standards and ethics is essential. Every effort has to be made to restore confidence in our official data.