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Administrative data is the routine data collected by governments and service providers in the course of their day-to-day business – and it is really unsexy stuff.

But as the international community comes together for the UN High-Level Political Forum this week and next, celebrating countries’ progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we can’t ignore what we don’t know: the advance edition of the Secretary-General’s SDG Progress Report highlights gaps and limitations in SDG data, preventing countries from tracking progress and designing effective actions to meet the goals.

Besides traditional statistical tools like censuses and surveys, one of the most promising ways to address this challenge is to make better use of administrative data.

So what does this mean?

Administrative data are collected for the purpose of carrying out various non-statistical programs or other administrative purposes such as legal compliance, access to government services, or to support planning, implementation, or monitoring of programs. When we register the birth of a child, purchase property and register the title, seek medical services, enroll our kids in school, complete customs forms at the border, and file our taxes, we are generating administrative records.

Buried in these bureaucratic records is a tremendous opportunity to extract insights that are timelier and more granular than other traditional data sources. Administrative data can also be more cost effective and sustainable because they are part of an existing and recurrent business process rather than stand-alone data collection exercises, which can cost millions of dollars.

What is possible, and what are the challenges?

Some countries, like Denmark, have done away with their census altogether because they can extract the relevant information from their administrative registers. While this approach may not be feasible or advisable for other countries, administrative data can supplement data from censuses and surveys, supporting more dynamic SDG monitoring and better targeted programming.

How administrative data is collected, managed, stored, and shared affects the extent to which it can be used for decision-making or reporting. Many countries have incomplete, inaccessible, and paper-based administrative records that are not connected or streamlined across government agencies. Low coverage of birth and death registration, particularly in Africa, is emblematic of this challenge and has a dramatic effect on countries’ ability to use civil registers for timely population data.

In some cases, the capacity to collect, analyze, and ensure the quality of the data is limited. And, while administrative data can offer significant benefits by providing detail down to the level of the individual, this needs to be balanced with regulation that protects privacy and prevents data breaches – regulation that is under-developed in even the richest regions of the world.

At the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, our partners are eager to make administrative data more accessible and usable for SDG implementation and monitoring. Our country partners consistently highlight administrative data as a high priority.

In fact, as part of their Inclusive Data Charter commitments, some of these partners are strengthening the capacity of staff across government to improve the quality of administrative data so they can disaggregate to a lower level and better understand who is being left behind.

Despite this progress, they continue to face a range of challenges, including:

  • how to better use data from administrative records, particularly to produce official statistics (and understanding the barriers to this use);
  • how to strengthen the systems and processes for producing administrative records to increase data quality;
  • how to foster collaboration across government to strengthen administrative records, facilitate data sharing, and increase data use;
  • how to address the legislative and regulatory barriers that prevent parts of government from working together and sharing data;
  • how to increase understanding across government on why administrative data is important and how it can support decision-making.

In response, the Global Partnership is kicking off a workstream to help our partners address these challenges.

What can we do to support countries?

Knowing that administrative data is a broad topic encompassing many issues ranging from capacity to legislation to interoperability, our first focus will be on better understanding the demand from country partners. Working closely with our key partner in Latin American, CEPEI, we will dig into partners’ experiences and challenges to understand where they see the biggest gaps. An early focus will be on fostering peer-to-peer learning across countries and across regions.

We will also work to connect country partners to expertise across the Global Partnership’s network. Many of our international organization and non-governmental partners are working to improve administrative data in different ways.

The UN agencies that act as custodians of particular SDG indicators such as UNESCO, WHO, UNICEF, FAO, UNFPA and others have a long history supporting administrative data systems at the sectoral level. International entities like the World Bank, the UN Statistics Division, PARIS21 and the UN Regional Economic Commissions, as part of their ongoing support to national statistical systems, are helping countries strengthen and make better use of administrative data. And, non-governmental groups like Development Gateway, Open Data Watch, Development Initiatives, and the Center of Excellence for CRVS Systems are providing technical support, producing valuable analysis on what drives administrative data use, and working with governments to make this happen.

As always, our aim will be to identify gaps or areas where good work can be joined up or scaled through new collaborations. We will facilitate solutions that respond to a clear demand and lead to increased data use for decision-making. Like our work on interoperability, citizen-generated data, and satellite data, we will aim to build a community of partners who believe they can achieve more together than alone.

We look forward to sharing what we learn and collaborating with you. It might not be sexy, but it is important.

Please reach out if you have ideas, resources, expertise, or projects to share!