National Treasury has approached Statistics South Africa to cut its budget, so that funds can be reprioritised towards coronavirus interventions, the Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke has said.

Maluleke was speaking to members of the portfolio committee of public service and administration on Friday, where he shared more on the impact of Covid-19 on the entity’s operations.

Responding to a question about potential budget cuts, this after it was announced R130 billion would be reprioritised from the existing budget to free up funds to support government’s efforts to respond to Covid-19, Maluleke said that Stats SA was considering ways it could realise savings, as all other government departments are doing during this time.

“Stats SA is responding accordingly like any other department to see areas where we can make savings. Of course, National Treasury will not always agree with us… but we are trying,” said Maluleke.

Before Covid-19 hit SA shores, Stats SA was embarking on a programme to make much need appointments to strengthen its operations. “If we do not fill these positions, statistics of the country may be affected,” Maluleke said. “Savings are happening, in the midst of all the challenges we are facing,” he added.

Stats SA has previously told parliament that budget cuts could affect the quality of statistics, and compromise government’s plans for the future. Government’s decisions are informed by the statistics provided by the entity. Statistics has a vacancy rate of 17.2%, and had over 600 vacant posts at the end of March 2019, Fin24 previously reported.

Earlier this year, the South African Statistics Council, which endorses the data released by Stats SA, threatened to resign if the statistical agency did not get the required funding to fill frozen posts.

Census 2021 to go ahead

Maluleke commented that Stats SA had always faced budget constraints but assured that the Census 2021 is adequately funded for fieldwork. Stats SA is engaging with Treasury on funding for the processing and release of the results. “National Treasury has committed to engage with us,” said Maluleke.

He said that the census funds were ringfenced and would not be touched as Stats SA finds ways to cut the budget to support Covid-19 efforts.

Stats SA is also adapting the way it goes about conducting surveys, given the Covid-19 health and safety precautions. Staff were to be sent out to collect data with face-to-face interviews, but Maluleke said that Stats SA is considering more innovative methods such as web surveys which can be self-operated and by having staff deployed at call centres to assist. Field workers would be sent to the elderly, or those who are illiterate and unable to use interfaces to respond to questionnaires, he said. Safety precautions would be taken so as not to expose fieldworkers to infection, he added.

“Covid-19 poses a challenge not only to Stats SA, but all statistical agencies in the world are faced with challenges to reinvent themselves and the methods being used to do our work,” said Maluleke.

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