Statscan’s chief economic analyst quits
TheGlobeandMail.com – news/politics
Published Wednesday, Feb. 01, 2012. Last updated Sunday, Feb. 05, 2012. Tavia Grant
Statistics Canada’s chief economic analyst has quit, citing concerns that internal debate at the agency is being stymied.
Philip Cross made his name as a straight-shooting analyst who scrutinized Canada’s economic cycles through recessions and recoveries and put them into historical context.
But after 36 years at Statistics Canada, most recently as its high-profile chief economic analyst responsible for the quality of major economic statistics, he is leaving the agency, The Globe and Mail has learned.
In an interview, he cited several reasons for the departure. For one, Statscan’s recent move to make data available for free on its website – starting Feb. 1 – will allow him to access data, crunch the numbers and analyze economic trends on his own.
Dismay over the handling of changes to the long-form census is another key reason, he said. Mr. Cross is concerned that the free exchange of ideas at the agency is diminishing, and that internal dissent is no longer being tolerated by senior managers – particularly when it comes to discussions about the 2011 census and new national household survey.
It’s not the first time the census has been a point of controversy. Munir Sheikh, Statscan’s former chief statistician, resigned in 2010 over a disagreement with the federal government’s move to scrap the mandatory long-form census in favour of the new voluntary household survey.
Turmoil has continued this year. Cost cuts, due to be announced in this spring’s federal budget, mean the agency is preparing for the possibility of layoffs.
Mr. Cross has plenty of praise for Statscan – it is managing pending budget cuts “efficiently yet humanely” and error rates have gone down in recent years. But “a lot of good can be offset if you get one big thing wrong – and the big thing in this instance is census and NHS [national household survey],” he said.
Survey response rates are his chief concern – the 69.3-per-cent response rate from the household survey is based on distribution to a third of households, meaning it’s actually based on answers from a fifth of the population. And it’s still unclear, he said, which segments of the population are missing from the sample.
“The focus on response rates ignores questions about the quality and distribution of the responses, but discussion of the latter issues is limited by management’s insistence on being ‘on-message’ all the time about  census and NHS being a success.”
The departure of Mr. Cross, known for his blunt style, is significant as few others can sift through such volumes of data and make sense of economic cycles and what is driving them, said Mr. Sheikh, who created the role of chief economic analyst for Mr. Cross in 2008 – at a time when the economy was souring, and the public was hungry for insights into the turmoil.
Economic analysis is Mr. Cross’s biggest strength, Mr. Sheikh said. “It’s not an easy thing to do when you’re sitting on mountains of data and trying to make sense of it when things are moving in different directions,” he said. “It’s a special skill, and he has lots of it.”
A Statscan spokesman said the agency had no comment on Mr. Cross’s departure, nor on whether he will be replaced.
Mr. Cross has joined the public-policy think tank C.D. Howe Institute as a research fellow. He will also run an independent consulting business and write a newsletter on the economy called Inside the Numbers.
He will still monitor economic cycles. And he will also co-chair a new initiative at C.D. Howe that will pinpoint the start and end of recessions.
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