Difficult access to administrative data | Business

In the recent acceptance speech for the King of Spain Award, Manuel Arellano, one of our country’s leading economists, argued that a nation without good administrative data is like a hospital system without access to advanced MRI equipment. To diagnose what the problems of an economy are, it is crucial to be able to observe reality in sufficient detail. This analysis of an economy in high resolution is possible thanks to the existence of administrative data or microdata. Fortunately, our governments collect a huge amount of data from citizens, businesses and other entities. For example in relation to income, income, access to social benefits, public services, among others. All this data is usually guarded by various state and local public administrations. Are these data used to diagnose and remedy problems with the functioning of the economy or public policies in Spain? Too often the answer is negative.

In recent decades, the analysis of administrative data has been a revolution in the type of research that can be carried out in the social sciences. For example, Raj Chetty and co-authors used income tax data from several generations of Americans to measure social mobility, that is, the extent to which people from low-income families manage to move up the social elevator to higher levels. of rent. The authors showed that the degree of social mobility in the US varies greatly between regions: the social elevator works best in the dynamic cities of California and worst in rural areas of the American Midwest. They also showed that the social elevator is working worse and worse in the US: the percentage of Americans who manage to earn more than their parents did has been falling steadily since the 1940s. This evidence has been key to questioning the idea that the US continues to be “the land of opportunity”. In order to reach these conclusions, it was key to access the universe of taxpayer data and be able to relate parents and descendants in the administrative records. This type of high-resolution analysis has also changed the way we understand other social problems. For example, it has been possible to measure rigorously and for several countries how the arrival of the first child magnifies the labor gap between men and women, and how public policies for family reconciliation mitigate this effect.

Having good administrative data not only expands the frontier of knowledge, but also fulfills another equally or more important task: to facilitate government action. The agile design and execution of public policies requires knowing reality first-hand and responding to it. The future challenges that our economy faces (transformation of labor markets by new technologies, unequal effects of climate change, among others) will make the design of interventions and services aimed at sectors and people with specific problems increasingly important. The countries that have developed a greater capacity to influence the economy with a scalpel will have a comparative advantage in designing and implementing the appropriate public policies.

What is the degree of availability and access to administrative data in our country? Although there have been some promising initiatives in recent years, the reality is that the degree of access is notably lower than that of neighboring countries. Researchers often experience delays in application processes and arbitrariness that tacitly prevent access to such data. Even the transfer of data between public administrations is not immediate and requires establishing agreements, conventions and numerous procedures. The misgivings about giving access to data are often hidden behind the need to protect the privacy of citizens. However, there are numerous solutions that allow the coexistence of the use of data for economic analysis with preserving the privacy of citizens. The fundamental reasons arise from a limitation in the technical capacity to prepare the data for access, as well as from a patrimonial vision of the administrative records, as if they were the property of the agency or administration that guards them.

How do the countries around us manage access to administrative data? In a recent article, Miguel Almunia and Pedro Rey Biel summarize the main access models in the international context. The Nordic countries have for decades been the pioneers in facilitating access to their data. A state statistical agency centralizes access to the administrative records of different agencies. This agency guards them and also crosses different databases from an identification number, similar to our DNI number. After making this crossover, the data becomes anonymous. In this way, when the researcher has access to them, there is no trace of identifying names or numbers and therefore it is impossible to find out to which individual each data corresponds. Furthermore, researchers or users cannot download the database to their computers. The data is analyzed on secure servers and only aggregated results can be extracted. Finally, only users who submit a quality proposal can perform these analyses. These are just some of the technical solutions that show how it is possible to make access to data compatible with the strictest compliance with data protection laws. Thanks to these systems, it is common to see studies that use data from the Nordic countries that have an incredible wealth of individual data, such as information on income, detailed work history in the business field, and even the results of personality and intelligence tests that performed by individuals during compulsory military service. This information is available for the universe of citizens of these countries.

Although the Nordic countries have a consolidated culture of use of administrative data, other countries such as the USA, France, Germany or Portugal have made important advances in recent years and greatly surpass us in the degree of accessibility and analysis of this type of data. In Spain, steps have been taken in the right direction in recent years. For example, the Ministry of Inclusion and Social Security recently enabled several secure rooms to facilitate access to Social Security data. On the other hand, several institutions (the National Institute of Statistics, the State Tax Administration Agency, Social Security and the Bank of Spain) are working on an agreement to create ways to access their databases safely. It is urgent to accelerate these changes so that Spain does not lag behind in relation to neighboring countries in facilitating the study of our economy and ensuring that we make the most of the available data for the design and evaluation of public policies.

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