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Editorial: Gov't should attach greater importance to own statistics

Government statistics, which track issues like economic trends, form an important component in the foundations for government policies. However, the government has made light of such data as a recent government review of statistical surveys exposed.

Of the 56 fundamental statistics that the government deems especially important, almost 40 percent, or 22 indicators, were found to have involved inappropriate handling of data, a probe by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has found. The ministry is the head agency in ensuring the quality of government statistics.

The review was carried out in response to the labor statistics scandal at the labor ministry that caused tens of billions of yen in work-related benefit payment shortfalls affecting tens of millions of people. Now that we know that problems with public stats are more widespread, the government should be ashamed of its lax attitude that allowed the shoddy handling of those statistics that was rampant across ministries and agencies.

According to the review, construction work surveys used the wrong data reported by companies, and survey targets in sales statistics were changed without informing the internal affairs minister as legally required. It is suspected that 21 of the 22 statistics found with problems violated the Statistics Act.

Internal affairs ministry officials say that those are simple mistakes, and do not involve wrongdoings and serious problems affecting the lives of Japanese as was the case with the labor stats scandal. Such a view, however, is too naive.

Fundamental statistics are used in calculating important indices such as gross domestic product (GDP) and serve as a basis for policymaking. Mistakes with such data can lead to mistakes in policy decisions.

The government is reviewing 233 other statistics, which may contain far more issues than the fundamental indicators.

If the spread of improper data handling was made clear through the additional examination, Japanese statistics would lose international trust. Such a development would discourage foreign investors from putting their money in Japan.

Behind these problems exists a shortage of national statistical experts, according to observers. There were around 1,900 staffers in charge of statistics at central government bodies as of April 2018, about half the figure of 10 years ago and far smaller than the United States or European countries. Such officials can easily be axed because of the Japanese government's low level of awareness about statistics.

National bureaucrats are unwilling to take up statistical assignments because emphasizing their achievements in such posts is not easy, and they tend to get transferred to other jobs in short periods of time. These assignments require experts, but bureaucrats are not eager to train officials in charge so that they can acquire required expertise.

This sloppy handling of statistics, which serve as the basis of policy formation, seems to have something in common with the disregard for public documents, common property belonging to the people, shown by Finance Ministry officials who were caught falsifying records approved by their superiors. Those cases all emerged under the watch of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration.

Making light of data only deepens people's mistrust in the government. The authorities should realize the importance of statistics, improve relevant organizations and better cultivate human resources.

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