Ministry’s egregious disregard for integrity of statistics is intolerable

Government statistics are important because they influence the government’s own policymaking and the management decisions of businesses, among many other effects. A situation that undermines the reliability of statistics is unacceptable.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry was found to have improperly handled data for statistics on orders for construction projects, such as by rewriting or double-counting data.

Construction orders are designated by the central government as one of the important “fundamental statistics” in Japan. They are used to calculate gross domestic product (GDP) and for other purposes. These figures are collected every month by the ministry based on survey forms submitted to prefectural governments by about 12,000 firms selected from about 470,000 construction companies nationwide.

According to the ministry, some of the firms did not submit data in every monthly survey but instead turned in multiple months’ worth of data all at once. In that case, the combined orders were treated as the figure for the latest month. Such improper handling took place in about 10% of the total.

The fact is that the ministry instructed prefectural governments to rewrite the figures, which is utterly astounding.

Since fiscal 2013, to improve the accuracy of the statistics, the ministry said it has used estimated figures for companies that fail to turn in their survey results on time, based on the actual performance of other companies.

As a result, the ministry wound up counting both the actual combined figures from companies that submitted multiple months’ worth of data all together, and their estimated figures. It is hard to understand why nobody noticed the discrepancy.

The ministry said it will set up a panel with the participation of third parties, including lawyers, and examine the issue. It is essential to clarify the whole picture of the situation as soon as possible.

Regarding another category of the government’s fundamental statistics, it was revealed in 2018 that the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry had collected its monthly employment data without abiding by the prescribed survey method. Following the revelation of the case, all fundamental government statistics were inspected simultaneously, but the recently revealed improper handling of construction orders was not reported then.

The infrastructure ministry stopped instructing prefectural governments to manipulate the data on construction orders after the Board of Audit pointed out the irregularities in 2019. However, for more than a year until March this year, the ministry itself continued to record late-submitted cumulative figures for multiple months as current figures, to compare them with the altered figures in previous fiscal years on the same condition. As the ministry did not make the fact public, suspicions of a cover-up are inevitable.

Meanwhile, regarding the issue of the Finance Ministry’s falsification of official documents to approve the sale of state-owned land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, the central government has suddenly switched its stance to accepting liability for compensation in a damages suit filed by the widow of a former official of the Finance Ministry’s Kinki Local Finance Bureau who took his own life.

The lawsuit has now been finalized, and no further official efforts will be made to get to the bottom of this issue. Is it possible to say that the central government has faced up to the issue sincerely?

A forgotten basic principle is that statistics and approval documents have high public significance, and they must not be rewritten or improperly handled for the convenience of bureaucrats. It is essential to thoroughly change the mindset of the entire government in this regard.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 17, 2021.