Statistics Law: Government's latest numbers game

 The Cayman Islands government is considering legislation that would bestow great authority upon an unelected “director” of a department, expose residents to new threats of penalties or prison time, and intrusively obstruct business and personal affairs … for no apparent reason – apart, perhaps, from bureaucracy’s innate inclination toward growth and overreach.

No, we’re not talking about the National Conservation Law. Rather, we’re referring to proposed amendments to the Statistics Law, which governs the behavior of the Economics and Statistics Office, the heretofore relatively benign agency, commonly called the ESO, that produces reports such as Labour Force Surveys and the decennial Census.

Don’t get us wrong. We appreciate the ESO’s work and often use their data to inform our own reporting. We also recognize the challenges the ESO faces when it collects statistics, namely, noncompliance because of apathy, laziness or love of secrecy among those being questioned. (Indeed, we – as journalists who regularly question our public officials – fully empathize with the ESO’s frustrations.)

However, the effects of the proposed amendments would further tilt the scales of power in favor of “Big Brother” against we the citizenry, and would propel government in precisely the opposite direction (expansion and expense) from what is envisioned in the Ernst & Young report on streamlining the civil service.

Here’s what the amendments would do:

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  • Empower the ESO director, currently Maria Zingapan, to collect statistics without Cabinet approval (a task that involves the authority to enter any residential or business premises)
  • Create new offenses (punishable by a $10,000 fine, three years’ imprisonment, or both) for those who supply false information to the ESO, or who fail to comply with the ESO director’s time frames for response
  • Allow ESO to submit voluntary surveys to Cayman’s exempted companies and trusts.

When posed with any proposal that would increase the government’s reach, diminish individuals’ privacy rights and devolve responsibility away from elected officials — our first reaction is to ask: Why?

Why does Ms. Zingapan require the authority to collect statistics without Cabinet approval? Ms. Zingapan told the Compass that’s because there is some confusion over who’s in charge of data collection.

If that’s the case, fine. But specify that Cabinet is ultimately responsible, not a civil servant unaccountable to the electorate.

Why does the ESO need to be able to threaten false or tardy respondents with fines and jail time? ESO economist Shanna Saunders-Best said it’s a gray area or “deficiency in the Stats Law.” Ms. Zingapan said the current law already makes it an offense to fail to respond to surveys, but no one has ever been charged for breaking the law.

If that’s the case, we certainly do need to clear up that gray area – by enforcing (or removing) the current provision, not by adding new provisions with a “wink, wink” understanding that these, too, will not be enforced.

Why does the ESO need to submit voluntary surveys to exempted companies and trusts? Ms. Zingapan said, “They want to be counted. They want to be acknowledged for their economic contribution.”

Preposterous. Those private entities can pay for their own marketing. Any data collected in such piecemeal fashion will be useless for the purposes of constructing general economic indicators.

Public consultation on the proposed amendments runs through Feb. 10. Up to that date, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development will be seeking written comments on the changes.
Here is our comment: Don’t.

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  1. I do not always agree with the views of this Editorial Board. However, I believe that the concerns expressed by them regarding the proposed amendments to the Statistics Law (as outlined in this editorial) should be revised by Government, prior to foisting them upon our people. For example, it seems somewhat draconian to create new offences (punishable by a 10,000 fine , three years’ imprisonment, or both) for failing to comply with the ESO director’s timeframe for a response. I believe that such a heavy-handed approach is not in the best interest of the people of these Islands. I therefore trust that the feedback received by Government during this public consultation period will be seriously considered by them prior to enacting the proposed amendments into the Statistics Law.