Op-Ed: Statistical independence as an antidote to mistrust
Ten or 15 years ago it was almost impossible to analyze issues concerning Puerto Rico without the approval from the head of a government agency. If we wanted to evaluate a situation that concerned the Health Department, the agency’s secretary was the one who had to authorize us to access the data.
When Víctor Fajardo (Secretary of Education, 1994 to 2000) received a request for data on the Education Department’s budget, he had the power to deny it. Similarly, Edwin Jiménez (Director of Community and Integrated Services, 2001 to 2006) could deny access to data on the management of federal funds for special and residential communities that his program ran.
All of the officials who turned their backs on public service were in charge of providing access to data that could reveal their corruption. Bit by bit, trust in the government and in the institutions that make it up was lost.
If the data was provided, a question remained: Was it reliable data?
The creation of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) was in part guided by the objective of eliminating these obvious conflicts. Created as an autonomous institution, PRIS would aim to provide fast and universal access to reliable data. PRIS was given the power to force agencies to provide their data even over the decision of the head of the government agency. This is a power that no other government instrumentality wields. Recently, PRIS has forced the Puerto Rico Planning Board, the Consumer Affairs Department, and the Health Department to provide access to their information.
To ensure that PRIS had freedom of action and was truly autonomous, PRIS’ law created a Board of Directors that would guide the destiny of this important institution. The board would be composed of six members who must have qualifications in areas such as economics, statistics and/or mathematics — or related areas — and a government official.
For a year and a half, the government’s representation has fallen on Alex López-Echegaray. Besides being a member of the Board of Directors, López-Echegaray is vice president of the Puerto Rico Public Broadcasting Corporation and Advisor of the Puerto Rico Senate.
The recent appointment of Manuel Laboy-Rivera (Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce) increased the number of government representatives to two. It is worrying that this appointment has been made against the independence of the Institute. Previously, the governor had appointed planner María Gordillo, which increased the number of government officials to two. This appointment was declared illegal by the court in March 2018. The autonomy of the Institute is what has allowed progress in access to data in recent years.
Another factor that contributed to this progress was the profile of the Board of Directors. Historically, qualified professionals were appointed in the areas established by law and with vast experience in Puerto Rico’s affairs. Recently, three people have been appointed with a Bachelor’s (one of them the governor’s second representative,) one with a Master’s degree and two lawyers. It is also worrisome that the governor’s appointments don’t include any women; there are only three women on the Board now. The transformation of the educational and gender profile is evident.
The government is at a crossroads regarding the Institute and must choose one of two paths. One leads to its strengthening with the appointment of trained people and where their autonomy is protected. The second leads to its erosion and the loss of its independence. The first one helps us to restore confidence in Puerto Rico’s institutions. The second leads us down the opposite path.
The decision is in the hands of the governor and the Legislative branch.