Covering up shoddy statistics work a gross ethical failure by ministry

It is reprehensible to continue improperly handling data for statistics and to cover up the wrongful practice so that it is not discovered. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry needs to take the matter seriously. It must make efforts to clarify its responsibility and take thorough measures to prevent a recurrence of similar irregularities.

A third-party panel has compiled a report on the ministry’s rewriting and double-counting of data for statistics on orders for construction projects. The report criticized the ministry for not disclosing the fact even after it became aware of the wrongdoing and trying to evade its responsibility.

According to the report, the rewriting of data had already begun in fiscal 2000 when the current data format for statistics was adopted, and the method was inherited from the time when the previous format was used.

When construction companies missed monthly deadlines to submit to prefectural governments their reports on construction orders received and instead later turned in multiple months’ worth of such data all together, the ministry instructed prefectural governments to treat the combined orders as the figure for the latest month when the delayed reports were submitted all at once.

In the report, the ministry said it gave such an instruction because it was concerned that annual orders might otherwise appear lower than they actually were. However, there is no way the ministry should have been allowed to rewrite the figures at its own discretion after they had been collected.

From fiscal 2013, the ministry adopted a method of using estimated figures for companies that failed to turn in their order receipts on time, resulting in double-counting of data. According to the report, this information was not shared between officials in charge of practical data collection and other officials, higher than assistant division chiefs, who had decided to introduce estimated figures.

These statistics are one of the nation’s fundamental statistics used in compilation of its gross domestic product (GDP) data, and can affect its policy decisions. Although the report said that the panel could not confirm whether the ministry intended to manipulate the figures for the sake of the administrations at that time, the government should speed up its review of the impact on GDP.

After 2018, when it was revealed that the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry had engaged in irregularities in keeping statistics, all fundamental government statistics were inspected simultaneously. At that time, a section chief in charge at the infrastructure ministry consulted his superiors about how to deal with the irregularities, but the recently revealed improper handling of construction orders was not considered to be problematic.

In June 2019, a newly appointed assistant division chief in charge demanded that the rewriting be stopped, but that person’s boss did not accept the demand, the report said.

In both cases, the ministry may have been afraid that the problem would be brought to light and its responsibility would be questioned. It completely lacked the ability to clean up its act.

In November 2019, the ministry instructed prefectural governments to stop rewriting the data after the Board of Audit pointed out the wrongdoing. However, until March last year, the ministry itself continued to record some late-submitted cumulative figures for multiple months as current figures to avoid a situation in which the figures would decrease drastically compared with those in the past.

When the infrastructure ministry tried to change its method of using estimated figures for other construction-related statistics in 2020, it submitted materials to a committee of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry in charge of statistics. Taking advantage of this opportunity, it quietly included in the materials explanations of the method to process combined figures in the construction orders as a reference. The infrastructure ministry gave the impression that the combined figures method had been approved by the internal affairs ministry. Can it be said that there was no intention to cover up the wrongdoing?

The government as a whole must renew its awareness of the significance of statistics and expedite the appropriate allocation of personnel, among other steps.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 20, 2022.