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The Progressive Economics Forum

Saving Statistics Canada

On September 9th, Canada’s Prime Minister received a letter from Mel Cappe, David Dodge, Alex Himelfarb and Ivan Fellegi. It opened with a stern warning that government actions with regard to the census over the summer “put the well earned credibility and respected international standing of Statistics Canada at risk”. Then they told him how to fix the problem. [The letter is posted in full below.]

Two former Clerks of the Privy Council, a former Governor of the Bank of Canada, and a former Chief Statistician; few people would better know what is at stake. During their decades-long careers, they have all served many iterations of the two ruling parties of Canada.

These men don’t need to play politics, and they don’t mince words.

They named the irreplaceable role that a statistical agency plays in a modern society: a cornerstone of public confidence and public trust, providing reliable information for those who govern and those who are governed, for public and private purposes, for today and for tomorrow. They noted that official institutions derive part of their reliability through freedom from political interference. They pointed out the government’s census decision casts a long shadow on both the real and perceived reliability of official data about Canada’s people.

And then they did what good public servants can’t help but do: they gave the leader a way out.

Their suggestion is yet another escape hatch to sanity among the many that had been pointed to over the course of the summer.

The other exit strategies were floated during in the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. (Remember, this whole story started after Parliament recessed for summer holidays.) The Dodge-Cappe-Himelfarb-Fellegi letter came after Labour Day, but before Parliament resumed. Perfect timing for a government that might choose to return to its senses (you know what I wanted to type in there) and lead with a strategy that puts it back in the driver’s seat, instead of constantly reacting.

And while most of the other exit strategies focused on the census decision specifically, this proposal focuses on the institution, Statistics Canada, providing a roadmap for securing the integrity and trust in all official statistics. It is based on a simple but clear set of principles developed by the UN, principles which Canada proudly helped craft and to which Canada is signatory. And it is dead easy to implement.

Summer’s over. Parliament is back. The vote to end the long-gun registry came and went, with the Harper team threatening to get more serious about killing it in future. It’s time to get more serious about the other threats we face as a society.

The census decision is one of those threats, for the reasons noted by Messrs Dodge, Cappe, Himelfarb and Fellegi. Parliamentarians will find themselves revisiting it many times this fall. There’s one simple way to stare down that threat: Adopt the Fellegi amendment (for short). Here’s what it looks like.

Dear Prime Minister,
Over the course of the summer issues have arisen that put the well earned credibility and respected international standing of Statistics Canada at risk. Minister Clement is correct, of course, in noting that Parliament has established the agency not as absolutely independent, but reporting to a Minister with the Governor in Council determining the questions of the census. However, the responsibility of the Chief Statistician for methodological and technical issues, implicit to date, has been called into question. Thus public confidence in the agency and the reliability of its statistics are likely to be reduced in the months and years ahead. The surest way to mitigate that risk is through a reaffirmation of the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics (attached).

We call on the Government to reconfirm Canada’s commitment to the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and to amend the Statistics Act to make clear that the Chief Statistician is responsible for issues of methodology and technique.

As the UN Principles indicate in the preamble: “the essential trust of the public in official statistical information depends to a large extent on respect for the fundamental values and principles which are the basis of any society which seeks to understand itself and to respect the rights of its members.” Moreover, UN Fundamental Principle 1 notes: “Official statistics provide an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society, serving the Government, the economy and the public with data about the economic, demographic, social and environmental situation.”

Principles two, three and four, in particular, call for the Chief Statistician to be able to maintain public support for, as well as trust and confidence in the methodological basis for Statistics Canada’s products. Those principles would suggest that the Chief Statistician be given the statutory responsibility for methodological competence now implicit in the office. Moreover, it follows that the Chief Statistician have the statutory authority to provide information to the public on methodological matters and issues relating to the reliability of the data. Amending the Act to incorporate these principles might include adding sections as follows:

4 (2.1) The Chief Statistician shall:
(i) within the financial parameters provided by the government determine according to strictly professional considerations, including scientific principles and professional ethics, the methods and procedures for the collection, processing, storage and presentation of statistical data;
(ii) present information according to scientific standards on the sources, methods and procedures of the statistics;
(iii) provide such public information that in his opinion are necessary to facilitate appropriate statistical interpretation of data.
.

Needless to say, this will have significant implications for the candidate the Governor in Council chooses to be the next and subsequent Chief Statisticians.

Prime Minister, our intent in proposing these amendments is to ensure continued public trust and confidence in Statistics Canada and in the quality of statistical information gathered, produced and published by the agency, preserving a world class institution with a stellar reputation.

We are copying the leaders of the other parliamentary parties as we see this issue as absolutely non-partisan and simply and essentially in the interests of good governance.

Yours truly,

Signed: Mel Cappe
David Dodge
Ivan Fellegi
Alex Himelfarb

CC Michael Ignatieff, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada
Jack Layton, Leader of the New Democratic Party
Gilles Duceppe, Leader du Bloc Québecois 

Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics
Preamble
The Statistical Commission,
– Bearing in mind that official statistical information is an essential basis for development in the economic, demographic, social and environmental fields and for mutual knowledge and trade among the States and peoples of the world.
– Bearing in mind that the essential trust of the public in official statistical information depends to a large extent on respect for the fundamental values an principles which are the basis of any society which seeks to understand itself and to respect the rights of its members.
– Bearing in mind that the quality of official statistics, and thus the quality of the information available to the Government, the economy and the public depends largely on the cooperation of citizens, enterprises, and other respondents in providing appropriate and reliable data needed for necessary statistical compilations and on the cooperation between users and producers of statistics in order to meet users’ needs.
– Recalling the efforts of governmental and non-governmental organizations active in statistics to establish standards and concepts to allow comparisons among countries,
– Recalling also the International Statistical Institute Declaration of Professional Ethics,
– Having expressed the opinion that resolution C (47), adopted by the Economic Commission for Europe on 15 April 1992, is of universal significance,
– Noting that, at its eighth session, held in Bangkok in November 1993, the Working Group of Statistical Experts, assigned by the Committee on Statistics of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to examine the Fundamental Principles, had agreed in principle to the ECE version and had emphasized that those principles were applicable to all nations,
– Noting also that, at its eighth session, held at Addis Ababa in March 1994, the Joint Conference of African Planners, Statisticians and Demographers, considered that the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics are of universal significance,
Adopts the present principles of official statistics:

Principle 1. Official statistics provide an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society, serving the Government, the economy and the public with data about the economic, demographic, social and environmental situation. To this end, official statistics that meet the test of practical utility are to be compiled and made available on an impartial basis by official statistical agencies to honor citizens’ entitlement to public information.

Principle 2. To retain trust in official statistics, the statistical agencies need to decide according to strictly professional considerations, including scientific principles and professional ethics, on the methods and procedures for the collection, processing, storage and presentation of statistical data.

Principle 3. To facilitate a correct interpretation of the data, the statistical agencies are to present information according to scientific standards on the sources, methods and procedures of the statistics.

Principle 4. The statistical agencies are entitled to comment on erroneous interpretation and misuse of statistics.

Principle 5. Data for statistical purposes may be drawn from all types of sources, be they statistical surveys or administrative records. Statistical agencies are to choose the source with regard to quality, timeliness, costs and the burden on respondents.

Principle 6. Individual data collected by statistical agencies for statistical compilation, whether they refer to natural or legal persons, are to be strictly confidential and used exclusively for statistical purposes.

Principle 7. The laws, regulations and measures under which the statistical systems operate are to be made public.

Principle 8. Coordination among statistical agencies within countries is essential to achieve consistency and efficiency in the statistical system.

Principle 9. The use by statistical agencies in each country of international concepts, classifications and methods promotes the consistency and efficiency of statistical systems at all official levels.

Principle 10. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation in statistics contributes to the improvement of systems of official statistics in all countries.

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Comments

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: September 23, 2010, 9:25 am

I must say that I truly wish Stephen Harper woudl sit down and read many of the critical reports of his decision, the history, statistical methods advances and the general pervailing moral fiber that exists at Statistics Canada as well as all the international leadership work that Statcan has performed over the years.

His ideological bull in a china shop approach truly is going to be quite painful.

I think the single biggest lesson we have all learned from this- at least progressives- is how blind by ideology Harper has become. He has been kept at bay by sheer fear of losing his hold over power- but this act is one that we cannot recover from for a very long time. I think the wide sweeping liberal minded institutional leaders have been finally introduced to the tea party north.

It just is such a wasteful display of ignorance- I must say it surely results in a systemic lose to all Canadians, and Statistical knowledge internationally- Statcan was the ultimate model of a modernity in action trying to measure such arcane abstractions as the economic and social. We are only in the infancy of measuring such constructs and making use of all the latest advances in infomation technologies. With the billions invested within this large expensive but necessary measuring tape, Mr Harper has basically thrown Statcan to the bottom of the tool box. It sure must be nice to have the kind of wealth and extravagance to take such a vehicle and drive it straight off the cliff. It truly feels like he is an adolescent and has never quite made it beyond his National Coalition days.

Poor Statcan- so much sweat and pain and growth and success wasted on some dumb ass notion that ideology and not pragmatism is the way forward.

Would you please just phrack Off Harper and leave the big decisions to the adults. Go play with your fighter planes and shiny new prisons.

Paul Tulloch

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