Chief statistician asked to rethink census for 2016

Posted on February 12, 2011 in Governance Policy Context

Source: — Authors: , – news/politics
Published Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.   Steven Chase and Tavia Grant, Ottawa And Toronto

Wayne Smith already has a tough job as the new head of Canada’s world-renowned statistics agency: picking up the pieces after the census controversy that claimed his predecessor.

Chances are, however, he may be overseeing even bigger changes at Statistics Canada – not for the 2011 census, already under way – but for the next one, in 2016.

The Harper government, which last year scrapped the mandatory long-form census on the grounds it was wrong to coerce Canadians into answering intrusive questions, has asked Statistics Canada to rethink the way it collects population data.

Mr. Smith, who took over from embattled chief statistician Munir Sheikh last summer and was appointed permanently in January, has been asked to study how other countries gather information and report with options that could shape the 2016 census.

Examples range from a register-based census, where governments dip into their records on their citizens, to surveying a different part of the country every year.

“The government wants to step back and say okay, ‘Let’s look at those other models: what is possible in Canada,’” the new chief statistician said.

“People have suggested that if we could make a register[-based] census work in Canada, we could save buckets of money and avoid annoying a whole bunch of Canadians in asking them to fill out forms.”

Register-based surveys appeal to statisticians – because they could pull together all sorts of information – but could generate huge privacy concerns, he said.

The chief statistician, who will work with his advisory committee on the matter, said while no decision has been made, everything is on the table.

When it comes to the 2011 census, however, Mr. Smith said he is sure about one thing: there’s no justification for critics to say that moving to a voluntary long-form survey will wreck the quality of the data.

“I’m asking Canadians to suspend judgment because there’s no scientific basis for saying this is going to be fundamentally flawed.”

The Harper government faced a broad chorus of critics when it scrapped the mandatory long-form census. While the short-form census with about 10 basic questions is still compulsory, the longer questionnaire of more than 40 questions about home, work and ethnicity has been transformed into the optional National Household Survey.

Those who have relied on the treasure trove of data generated by the census, from social scientists to health researchers to businesses, warn this change will hinder StatsCan’s ability to generate an accurate picture of small groups, such as new immigrants, who may ignore a voluntary form.

The money expended on the new national survey “is a complete and total waste,” economist Paul Jacobson, vice-president of the Canadian Association for Business Economics, said.

He is chiefly concerned that the results of the survey will not be comparable with previous census data. “When we make a big change, we have irrevocably lost something. It doesn’t matter how good the survey is, we’ve lost it and that’s something we can never recover.”

Mr. Smith is adamant, however, that critics cannot know for sure that the results from the optional long form, even for smaller sub-groups of the population, will be inferior to what was collected via the mandatory approach in 2006.

“There is no scientific reason why you would say before it even starts, before I see results, that there’s going to necessarily be a significant problem with the count of Inuit or Métis or immigrants beyond the levels we’ve seen in the 2006 census.”

Ottawa is mailing the optional long form to one-third of households in an attempt to boost the response rate. In the past, the long form went only to one-fifth of residences.

Mr. Smith said StatsCan will not publish data that it decides is too flawed for use.

“The only areas where StatsCan will not proactively publish information is where we know beyond the shadow of a doubt there is a problem that makes the data unusable.”

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