Noted economists and researchers said the ongoing data anarchy appears to have turned into a data terrorism, causing serious obstacles to policy formulation.
They told a dialogue in Dhaka Thursday that public data often do not reflect the reality, the release sometimes takes too long that the publication turns irrelevant and inconsistent data are revealed occasionally.
As an example, the economists referred to Bangladesh national budgets that they said lack mentions about region-wise allocation, allocation for marginalised and grassroots people and real-time assessments whether the government finances help change their financial health.
The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) hosted the programme titled "Challenges of Improving Fiscal Data for Policymaking in Bangladesh".
CPD Chairman Prof Rehman Sobhan said data quality would improve if data are generated prioritising the primary data users and the policymakers.
"But the majority of demand for change in data quality comes from outside the government, which is a critical weakness as the driver of change," he noted.
CPD Distinguished Fellow Debapriya Bhattacharya, who last year insisted that data blindness is prevailing in Bangladesh, said fiscal data has a critical role not only from the perspectives of accountability and transparency, but also for policy-making.
"The prevailing dearth of timely delivery of quality fiscal data as per the demand may have emerged from several sources such as a lack of awareness, capacity, urgency for sustainability, and absence of procedure and application."
Debapriya Bhattacharya opined that a political commitment is required to bring a positive change in this regard.
In the programme, CPD Senior Research Fellow Towfiqul Islam Khan presented the keynote paper titled "Fiscal Data in Bangladesh: Issues and Challenge".
For the country's gradual decline in the Open Budget Survey (OBS) ranking, the keynote pointed the finger at not drafting the pre-budget statement, late publication of budget data and late midyear review, and no auditing.
In 2010, Bangladesh got 58 points out of 100 in the OBS index, but the score came down to 36 in 2019. Bangladesh's position in the index is much lower than the average of 45. Many neighbouring countries, even Sri Lanka, are ahead of Bangladesh in the index.
Towfiqul Islam Khan said national budgets have data on allocation, income and spending of the ministries and other public offices. But budgets do not have regional or constituency-wise allocation data.
He said what kind of taxes have been collected from which area and what kind of allocations are available there are not mentioned in the budget. He noted that not publishing the report on time has become very common in Bangladesh.
"The Finance Division – which provides the most information on budget – has the last monthly fiscal report of June last year. No information for the current financial year has been released yet," he said.
Claiming government data accuracy faces questions due to data discrepancy among the Finance Division, the National Board of Revenue and the Bangladesh Bank, he said revenue authorities' collection figures mismatch with the Finance Division.
"On the other hand, the IMED shows more spending in ADP implementation than the Finance Division."
The researcher said that although the budget deficit was estimated at Tk189,997 crore in the last fiscal year, it stood at Tk129,593 crore at the end of the year. Though there were scopes for spending Tk60,000 crore for fighting the pandemic, vaccination and social safety, lack of actual information upended it.
Meanwhile, Zahid Hussain, former lead economist of the World Bank in Dhaka, said Bangladesh will not get an "A" in four budget data assessment gauges – availability, accessibility, agility and accuracy.
"The country may get a 'C' or 'B' in most of the indices. In terms of transparency and participation, Bangladesh may be ahead of only Afghanistan among its neighbours."
Zahid Hussain said it is very difficult for a service recipient to avail public data. The government needs to ease up the process. And at the same time, information must be accurate and acceptable.
Ranjit Kumar Chakraborty, former additional secretary at the Ministry of Finance, said the country's financial sector has been undergoing reforms since the 90s, and commented that the benefits have started to become visible.
Lawmaker Md Abdus Shahid, member at the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Accounts, said only data-driven decisions can make policymaking more transparent. The government is carrying out many activities, but often they are not reflected in data.
Saber Hossain Chowdhury, chairman at the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Planning, said the issues and challenges are not about fiscal data, rather about statistical data.
Data revolution is a key prerequisite for achieving sustainable development goals, he also said, adding that data accessibility and transparency always lack from the government end.
The data producers either do not want to share or do not have a systematic way of data collection, Saber Hossain noted.
For Bangladesh, data terrorism has emerged as one of the main challenges, said Shameem Haider Patwary, member at Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs.
The story told by data often is not reflective of the actual scenario. More focus should be put on achievement-based indicators, he also said, adding that there is also an acceptability issue regarding data amongst politicians.
Data related issues cannot be solved without acceptability, he pointed out.