Federal statistical folly in full view

Posted on July 22, 2010 in Governance Debates

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TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions/Editorial – The resignation of Munir Sheikh, Canada’s chief statistician, represents the loss of a respected public servant, and a further blow to the credibility of a venerable agency. Published on Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2010. Last updated on Thursday, Jul. 22, 2010.

The folly of the federal government’s decision to change the census has been exposed, and at a steep price. The resignation of Munir Sheikh, Canada’s chief statistician and the head of Statistics Canada, represents the loss of a respected public servant, and a further blow to the credibility of a venerable agency.

In announcing his resignation, Mr. Sheikh spoke to “a technical statistical issue,” specifically “whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.”

With three words – “It can not” – Mr. Sheikh spoke volumes.

The resignation of an official of deputy-minister rank, as Mr. Sheikh was, on a matter of policy or principle, is extraordinary and rare. Deputies are, despite their non-partisan status, political actors; they must navigate the whims of the government of the day, advising it on how best to carry out its agenda, while upholding the interests of their department or agency, and the demands of good public policy.

In the Privy Council Office, Mr. Sheikh led cost-cutting exercises for the entire government; he is no shrinking violet in the face of a tough challenge. By resigning, he essentially stated that the government’s extreme, unreasonable demands on the census simply could not be reconciled with his other professional responsibilities.

The federal government’s attempts to justify the elimination of the long-form census questionnaire fail to achieve the standard of what Canadians should expect of their elected officials: It continues to trot out silly claims (“We do not believe Canadians should be forced, under threat of fines, jail, or both, to divulge extensive private and personal information”) that have no relation with the actual price for not responding to the census.

It put Mr. Sheikh in an untenable position, with Industry Minister Tony Clement implying that Statistics Canada supported the change.

And in recent days, the rhetoric has become baffling: the government has invoked the fact that a tiny mischievous minority list “Jedi Knight” as their religion as a reason to get rid of the questionnaire.

The whole exercise has belittled everyone involved.

As with so many political scandals, big and small, the aftermath has obscured the original decision and its rationale. The rationale proved to be groundless, while the aftermath has thrown a vital public institution, Statistics Canada, into turmoil.

But the original decision remains: As a result, the foundational, authoritative data that underlies most public opinion and public policy analysis research in Canada is gone.

Good government is about leadership – focusing the population on the important challenges of the future, not distracting them with sideshows – and management: inspiring an organization to do the best work of which it is capable.

On this matter, the government is failing the tests of both strong leadership and good management.

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