Not up to data

The Russian authorities have shifted gears in their attempt to control information flows in the country, but this does not only concern data leaks and information published by investigative outlets. Two recent stories serve as reminders that the authorities are increasingly unwilling to publicize or tolerate unflattering data on the state of the country. This endangers policymaking and usually does not even work.

It barely registered in the media when, in late March, it emerged that the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences had decided to restrict access to research on air and soil pollution in Siberian cities, which showed worrying pollution figures for Siberian cities, for fear of the political consequences of “dropping a bomb” just before the September Duma election.

It’s not like making the air clearer is not a priority for the Russian government: environmental issues (especially as related to standards of living) are higher on the political agenda than even a couple of years ago, and one of the programs in the Ecology National Project is called “Clean Air”. But this focuses on twelve industrial cities only, some of which, according to the project’s auditors, do not even have particularly high levels of air pollution, while the project does not focus on many cities that do.

Airing grievances

In fact, it is difficult to estimate the real gravity of air pollution in Russia due to the bad quality of data. This problem was recently explored in an excellent series of articles by Yekaterina Mereminskaya in VTimes. According to the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (Rosgidromet) data on air quality is collected only in 20 percent of Russian cities, and even this is patchy: often, even though a city has a research station, there simply aren’t enough measurements or not every kind of particle is measured. Furthermore, the authorities only publish final analyses, which makes granular data analysis by independent researchers impossible.

These data also face constant tinkering: Mereminskaya mentions that in 2019 the amount of recorded emissions from cars decreased almost by a factor of three, from 12-15 million to 5.4 million tons, which is partly due to technological shift, but almost certainly also has to do with a new accounting system for carbon monoxide emissions. Rosgidromet has also raised the permissible concentration of pollutants on dubious grounds, a move that obviously reduces the number of badly polluted cities in statistics but does nothing to the situation on the ground (or, in this particular case, above the ground).

One of the core promises of Mikhail Mishustin’s government was to make the implementation of the National Projects more efficient and faster. Theoretically, this is also an important goal for regional governments. Governors are assessed on how effectively they are implementing the priorities of the projects and how efficiently they are spending the money allocated for them, and governors are personally responsible to ensure that the goals are reached. These “key performance indicators” (KPIs) were not suspended even under the pandemic, even though the deadline of the implementation of the National Projects was pushed back by six years. But patchy data make designing and implementing policies difficult or impossible, secrecy suppresses public oversight and feedback – a vital part of policymaking – and changing definitions (if they are the result of political pressure) leave public officials essentially at the mercy of their superiors.

The issue is not limited to air quality. In order to meet goals related to waste recycling, a 2019 waste collection reform similarly bent the definition of recycling to include waste incineration plans. A new tweak will give regional operators – typically politically connected companies who run a region’s waste management system – more power over the kind of waste that they collect and how much to charge households for them. There are other examples of tweaking definitions for data to fit or to help a political narrative, including how road construction is accounted for; how data on economic output is reported; what will effectively count as negative emissions in a planned emissions trading system; and many beyond these. Some even argued that grossly underreporting COVID-19 death figures, as many regions did, may have influenced decision-making at the level of the Presidential Administration. This is difficult to prove, but it is far from implausible.

Rating insanity

In another telling move, on April 1 Rosstat announced that, together with the Ministry of Economy and the City of Moscow it would work to “increase the accuracy” of data used to calculate Russia’s standing in “international ratings”. The project is based on the suspicion that international organizations and other agencies that prepare ratings use “unofficial sources” and outdated data, which has led to Russia or the Russian capital being unflatteringly misrepresented in these ratings.

Rosstat’s press statement does not mention which international ratings the authorities are unhappy with, but it is pretty clear that there are certain ratings that they are happy with. These tend to fall into a specific category. In January Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a government paper announced that Moscow’s position improved in 23 “international ratings”. The article mentions some of these: e.g. “The World’s 100 Best Cities” issued by Resonance Consultancy, or a rating by the “CEOWORLD” magazine. These are ratings issued by consultancies or similar companies that make profit off of compiling and selling extended versions of them. Resonance’s rating, for instance, takes 100 cities with at least one million inhabitants selected by the authors and ranks them based on 25 indicators, for which data is standardized across cities and then compared. The robustness of these data is sometimes questionable: e.g. to analyze tourist attractions the rating takes into account, among other things, Instagram hashtags and TripAdvisor recommendations. Or take the rating of “Internations”, an expat networking community, which is based on a survey of its users. In short, these ratings are basically part of the PR strategy of a city and the Moscow city hall handles them like that: since 2019 it has had a project office whose main task is to follow these ratings and keep in touch with the relevant organizations.

Or take the World Bank’s Doing Business rating, the publication of which was suspended last year. The Russian government found this rating so important that Putin himself set a goal, in 2011, to improve Russia’s position in it after Russia placed 120th in 2011. Putin’s goal was to raise Russia into the top 20, which did not happen, but in the 2020 rating Russia was placed 28th, not too far from the original goal. Did doing business really become so much easier in Russia in the past decade? Probably no. But the point is that we would not know this from Doing Business, because the rating, mostly due to the standardizations necessary to compare very different economies, was famously easy to game (and only focused on the biggest business cities of any country anyway) – which made it a favorite of autocrats as it allowed momentous leaps without meaningful changes. Again, essentially, PR.

While it is important that accurate data are reported on Russia’s demographics or agricultural output in the rankings of the relevant international organizations, it is difficult to see why providing accurate statistical data for an international organization, of which Russia is a member, would require a new institution or a separate project. It seems more likely that the government is displeased with Russia’s position in rankings such as Transparency International’s corruption perception index (where it ranked 129th out of 180 last year), or with credit rating agencies (which also use “unofficial sources” and “expert opinions” singled out in Rosstat’s press release). and the goal is either to get these agencies to trust the data that the government is willing to share with them or, if they are unwilling to do this, discredit their ratings. In short, it seems that Rosstat is asked to become part of the government’s PR efforts.

Engineering opinions and expectances is every autocrat’s dream and with its rapidly expanding digital surveillance market and tightening grip over media, social media and even citizen feedback, Russia is inching closer to this. Until then, however, bad data, secrecy and definitions that shift to accommodate grand or lesser political goals will impair good policymaking and reduce it to PR, which will not work always and everywhere.

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