The Authoritarian Data Advantage?

I am back in Indonesia for a brief trip to meet with officials at various government and non-government agencies. As part of my first set of meetings, I met with officials from BPS, the Indonesian Central Statistics agency. On several occasions, I heard discussions of the challenges of collecting accurate data in Indonesia’s democratic era.

Specifically, the problem facing Indonesian officials is survey non-response: firms and individuals contacted in national surveys on the labor force, industry, and so on are increasingly refusing to fill out survey questionnaires, even though in many cases they are required by law to do so. Non-response is reaching 40% in some surveys, up from under 10% twenty years ago. There is a wide agreement that this is at least partially a result of the collapse of the Soeharto regime, under which there was a kind of vague fear that something might happen if you did not comply with government instructions.

Let me be clear: no one at BPS is telling me (or anyone else) that democracy is a bad thing. But non-response bias is a bad thing if you are responsible for producing the sorts of national economic statistics that policymakers employ to make policy. If non-response is random, then the problem is just that it’s harder to separate the signal from the noise; but if non-response is non-random—which could be the case if, say, larger firms don’t care to waste their time on surveys—then surveys could actually be biased in one direction or another.

This phenomenon sheds an interesting new light on existing research on the effects of regime type on data transparency. Hollyer, Rosendorff, and Vreeland have shown that democracies are more transparent with national statistical data than are dictatorships. Yet it is hard to assess the quality of the data that is being produced. The Indonesian case would suggest that at least in some circumstances, certain kinds of dictatorships can have a certain kind of advantage in the production of good data. Call that the authoritarian data advantage.

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