In Blog

Testimony re Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Statistics Act

INDU

Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology

Meeting No. 56

Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 8:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.

Witnesses:

 Our Right to Know

  • Margrit Eichler, President

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

  • Paul Schreyer, Deputy Director, Statistics Directorate (by videoconference: Paris, France)

Statistical Society of Canada

  • Brian Allen, Past-President

As an individual

  • Jean-Guy Prévost, Director, Political Science Department, Université du Québec à Montréal

Speaking Notes by Margrit Eichler, President, Our Right to Know

Thank you for inviting me to speak before you. Permit me to briefly introduce myself. I am a retired Professor of Sociology and Equity Studies. I taught at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto until 2011. I am here in my capacity as President of Our Right to Know. We are a registered advocacy group with the mandate to advocate for the free conduct, communication, publication and archiving of research. Our slogan is “Public Science for the Public Good”. The major data gathering institution in Canada is Statistics Canada. The well-being of Stats Can is therefore close to our hearts.

Although there are a number of issues that could be addressed, I will restrict myself to only one point – the relationship between Statistics Canada and Shared Services Canada.

When we learned that the former Chief Statistician had resigned in protest over the lack of independence of Statistics Canada, we contacted him to learn more. While I have never met Mr. Smith face-to-face, there have been many written and oral exchanges. What we learned from these alarmed us. We then contacted a number of experts to compare their view of the situation with that of Mr. Smith’s. We found no reason to doubt his integrity and veracity.

The Minister, in his remarks during the debate in the second reading of Bill C-36 made it clear that high quality data are needed to be able to make informed policy decisions. He makes a strong and convincing case that this requires independence of the national statistical service. If passed the bill will increase the political independence of Statistics Canada.

We strongly applaud the intent of the bill on this count.

However, given such clearly stated intent it is puzzling that there is no assurance of administrative independence.

Imagine that you were the chef for a huge gala dinner for hundreds of people. The contract has been signed. The overall framework has been agreed upon – the menu has been decided, serving times have been set, sou-chefs will be hired – and then you find out that there is an unanticipated wrinkle: There is a housemaster who will determine which and how many pots you can use at what time, how many burners you may use at what time, and how many and which sou-chefs you may hire. In other words, you realize that you would be in a position of responsibility without the authority to make sure the menu can be served as planned. At this point, you would probably tell your employer to cook the meal himself.

While Statistics Canada’s job is infinitely more important and complicated than creating a gala dinner, however splendid it may be, the agency does find itself in a similar situation: Bill C-36 says:

(5) the Chief Statistician shall ….

(a) decide, based strictly on professional statistical standards that he or she considers appropriate, the methods and procedures for carrying out statistical programs …

[and]

(c) control the operations and staff of Statistics Canada.

However, according to Wayne Smith, Shared Services Canada “has complete control of the critical informatics infrastructure supporting Statistics Canada.” This amounts to an effective veto power on the part of Service Canada over “any project, program or initiative of Statistics Canada that requires modifications to informatics infrastructure, and, in the world of official statistics, any significant change does.”[1]

What are the consequences of this arrangement?

  • Delays of major transformational projects, e.g. the Integrated Collection Operations System and the Integrated Business Statistics Platform
  • An unwieldy, user-unfriendly website
  • Idling project teams
  • Delays in delivering needed hardware, problems in maintaining aging equipment
  • Cost estimates disconnected from reality
  • Unnecessary financial difficulties

In other words, for a statistical agency where a primary objective is the production and dissemination of data and information, Service Canada is an inefficient system. It does not allow Statistics Canada to operate at a peak level of performance. It wastes human and financial resources.

We consulted with my former classmate and distinguished CRC Chair Monica Boyd. She is an expert user of Statistics Canada data, and has been seconded 3 times to Stats Can on a visiting Senior Fellow basis.  She described to us three of the recent problems associated with the shift to the Service Canada platform:

  • It has become very difficult to find information
  • How issues are arranged is not always logical
  • Posting of information that normally was routine now appears to be erratic. Recently, a major set of analytical papers produced at Statistics Canada could not be accessed for two weeks.

She considers the relationship between SSC and Stats Can as a “cancer that is slowly affecting the entire system.”

We argue that this is probably due to the fact that Statistics Canada has a different structure and a different logic than the other departments that are serviced by SSC. Most departments deliver programs and services, Stats Can delivers data and analyses. We also want to mention that we are not aware of any other national statistical service in a developed nation that does not grant administrative independence to its statistical service.

To pass the legislation without at the same time removing Statistics Canada from under the control of Shared Services Canada creates a serious set of problems which cannot but hurt what we all want: a truly independent Statistics Canada.

We therefore strongly recommend that complete authority to run its own operations be returned to Statistics Canada in order to enable it to fulfill its duties as outlined in bill C-36.

[1] From a blog written at the request of ORK https://ourrighttoknow.ca/caught-in-the-iron-cage-of-bureaucracy-why-i-resigned-as-chief-statistician-of-canada/