The Crisis at Statistics Canada

I am a member of the National Statistics Council, an expert advisory group to Statistics Canada. We meet twice a year as a group with the Chief Statistician and senior Statscan staff. The members are a varied group of expert users of data.

The Chair of the Council, Ian McKinnon,  released this statement to the media last night.

STATEMENT ON THE RESIGNATION OF DR. MUNIR SHEIKH

In my role as its Chair, and on behalf of the members of the National Statistics Council, I express our deep regret at the resignation of Munir Sheik as Chief Statistician, and the circumstances which gave rise to it. I would like to express our respect for the dedication and professionalism of Dr. Sheikh and acknowledge the integrity with which he has faced an impossible situation over the past few weeks.

During this period, his scrupulous observance of the limits imposed on him by his obligation to respect the confidentiality of advice he and his agency gave to Cabinet left him unable to defend his professional competence or respond to statements that tended to cast doubts on the professional competence of Statistics Canada. With Dr. Sheikh’s resignation, Statistics Canada and indeed the nation’s statistical system, has lost the committed services of a man of integrity and honour.

In his relatively short period in that role, Mr. Sheikh had sought at every turn to maintain the highest quality and relevance of Canada’s statistical system, while guiding its adaptation to current economic realities.

Ian McKinnon
Chair, The National Statistics Council

Dr Sheikh’s statement does not actually say but makes it very clear that Statistics Canada strongly advised the government against the change,  a key point that was obfuscated by Minister Clement (to put it charitably) until last night when he said in e mail that “as I have noted previously, Statistics Canada’s preferred approach would have been to maintain the mandatory long form census.”

Dr. Sheikh’s statement follows:

OTTAWA — There has been considerable discussion in the media regarding the 2011 Census of Population.

There has also been commentary on the advice that Statistics Canada and I gave the government on this subject.

I cannot reveal and comment on this advice because this information is protected under the law. However, the government can make this information public if it so wishes.

I have always honoured my oath and responsibilities as a public servant as well as those specific to the Statistics Act.

I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

It can not.

Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister.

I want to thank him for giving me the opportunity of serving him as the Chief Statistician of Canada, heading an agency that is a symbol of pride for our country.

To you, the men and women of Statistics Canada – thank you for giving me your full support and your dedication in serving Canadians. Without your contribution, day in and day out, in producing data of the highest quality, Canada would not have this institution that is our pride.

I also want to thank Canadians. We do remember, every single day, that it is because of you providing us with your information, we can function as a statistical agency. I am attaching an earlier message that I sent to Canadians in this regard.

In closing, I wish the best to my successor. I promise not to comment on how he/she should do the job. I do sincerely hope that my successor’s professionalism will help run this great organization while defending its reputation.

Munir A. Sheikh

Where do we go from here? The mandatory long form census should be re-instated, perhaps accompanied by a consultation process on possible changes. Most importantly, measures need to be taken to secure greater independence of Statscan from the government of the day. This has no formal basis but was strongly upheld by Ivan Fellegi during his long tenure as Chief Statistician, and was upheld by Munir Sheikh yesterday.

8 comments

  • Okay, was I dreaming or did the Chief Statistician resign yesterday. I have to say it was one of the more stressful days I have endured in sometime. Not sure how all that works, but when one has an attachment to an organization, over those many long gone years, all the sweat, the worry about meeting goals and quality and public service and designing surveys and working with methodologists and all that associated with working at the Stat barn, one remains very connected, in a very organic sense to an institution that is like no other in the civil service. Trying to be neutral within an ocean of politics is so so difficult, but then to have the political pressure and the process suddenly seize a hold of everything that matters, and then squashing it to the whims of some unproven and non-tested nor well thought impossible course of action, blind sides a ship with 6000 passengers. The captain tells everybody, the ship is sinking and I am going to stay, the rest of you seek safety.

    Suddenly the journey becomes muddled and the way forward more questionable, amidst a sea of chaos which seeks definition.

    Suddenly the toolbox which was mostly empty is feeling ever more alien, now the dull hammer in it, is missing its teeth and nowhere will the brushes and the paints that one always wished for, ever make their appearance.

    I can only imagine how stressful a day it was for Dr. Sheikh.

    One does need to tip their hat to Dr. Sheikh.

    So what next is a very difficult question. And I will say this, the story is far from over. But the Dr. has made the tories life a whole lot more difficult and whoever sits at the helm now, will be nothing more than a lap dog for sure. The replacement will not be able to live through that three word space called- “it can not”.

    If ever the time for a review in formality is needed in Statcans structure it is now. The vulnerability requires a fix before the entire institution is flattened by Harper- potentially that was his objective. These actions are a direct assault to our democracy and need to be fixed for good. I am surprised the agency has been able to weather such storms over the years.

    pt

    pt

  • Hey Salty, I could not have said that better myself!?

    I would like to point out that the Globe and Mail owes me a large order of timbits.

    Just last week they ran the famous poll that showed a split 50/50 on what the globe thought was a reasonable question to monitor this issue. Something like do you feel the long form is an an invasion of privacy.

    I believe I stated last week that if the Globe asked a proper question, similar to the one they have on their website right now, about mentioning the benefits of disclosing this perceived privacy, respondents would indicate about 80% in favour of the the mandatory census long form. Guess what the score is right now 80-20 and that is with 12,000 responses and we are midway through the day in the east and early afternoon in the west and it has not strayed much from this ratio.

    okay now which reporter do I want to deliver those timbits, hmmmmm.

    pt

  • Good thing you copied and pasted Sheikh’s letter… it has already been removed from the Statscan website… your link is dead.

    Now I wonder why someone would do that.

  • Hey surprise surprise the link to Clement still lives> But here is the text in case it dies:

    Statement by the Minister of Industry, Tony Clement
    Benzinga Staff
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    Posted on 07/21/10 at 10:06pm by Benzinga Staff

    OTTAWA, ONTARIO–(Marketwire – July 21, 2010) – Today, the Honourable Tony Clement, Minister of Industry, issued the following statement:

    “I acknowledge with regret the resignation of Munir Sheikh, the Chief Statistician of Canada.

    “There has been considerable commentary about the federal government’s decision to replace the 2011 mandatory long-form census with the voluntary National Household Survey. The government made this decision because we do not believe Canadians should be forced, under threat of fines, jail, or both, to disclose extensive private and personal information. We believe it is not appropriate to compel citizens to divulge how many bedrooms they have in their houses or what time they leave for work in the morning.

    “The government’s approach is about finding a better balance between collecting necessary data and protecting the privacy rights of Canadians.

    “As I have noted previously, Statistics Canada’s preference would have been to maintain the mandatory long-form census.

    “However, once the government decided to replace the mandatory long-form census, Statistics Canada was asked to provide options for conducting a voluntary survey of households. One of the options provided – the voluntary National Household Survey – was chosen.

    “A voluntary long-form survey offers challenges that do not exist in the case of a census that uses coercion to compel completion. Nonetheless, by working together with the professionals at Statistics Canada, I believe we can compensate for these challenges and offer data users high-quality and accurate information.

    “Throughout this process, I have relied on the frank and open advice of Statistics Canada and the Chief Statistician. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all employees of Statistics Canada for the hard work and dedication that has made Statistics Canada one of the best national statistical organizations in the world.

    “Until a permanent successor can be found Wayne Smith, Assistant Chief Statistician, Business and Trade Statistics, will act on an interim basis.”

  • As a former member of the National Statistics Council, I am astounded to witness that a Cabinet Minister does not seem to understand what a large proportion of Canadians intuitively do without special Statistical training, viz. that a voluntary census no longer enjoys the character and credibility of a Census. What do those people in Ottawa have in store now – maybe change the national currency to goats and seashells?

  • ===>>> To Andrew Jackson

    Just a couple of background questions, and then a suggestion. First, I cannot find a listing of the 40 members of the National Statistics Council on the StatCan website. Is there a list of the members and some brief bio sketches for each?

    Second, is Ian McKinnon the Ian McKinnon who once worked alongside Alan Gregg at Decima Research?

    On the Census long form itself, I personally don’t believe there is any meaningful invasion of privacy involved, and I think it speaks to the irrationality and paranoia that career privacy advocates have fueled over the past two or three decades that all Harper and Clement need to do is invoke that term in order to have at least the appearance of some kind of case.

    However, while I do not accept that there is any invasion of privacy involved there is a significant responsdent burden, a time cost for the household to complete the long form, at least in cases of larger households with more than one or two people working. That’s going to be most particularly true for households that are time pressured to begin with, and who are not lead be people who are great record keepers or paper shufflers and for whom white collar organizational skills are not a given. It’s also going to be particularly burdensome for any household with language and literacy difficulties.

    I wonder if, instead of spending addtional money on a larger, voluntary sample, it wouldn’t be a good idea to spend that money on $10 or $20 honorariums for homes that get the long form, with the condition that it remains mandatory. When the nation wants particular people to put aside scarce time to help us all out in seeing the big picture, should there not be some compensation for the time we are taking from them?

  • Just as an aside, and a bit of dark humour, I am starting a rumour that the new Chief Statistician will be either Michael Walker or Brian Lee Crowley.

  • Insert Real Name

    Just for the sake of completeness, the “earlier message to all Canadians” that Munir Sheikh attached to his resignation announcement has also been remove from the StatsCan website. However, here it is from the Google cache, for what it is now worth:

    “Message from the Chief Statistician of Canada

    At Statistics Canada, our goal is to provide the best and most reliable information possible on our society, our economy, our environment and other dimensions of our country.

    We follow the highest technical standards in collecting information from you as individuals, businesses and institutions and in reporting it back to you. In addition, we work neutrally and objectively, without interference or influence from any groups or individuals. Finally, we place a very high value on the confidentiality of the information we collect and on the privacy of those who provide it. For these reasons, we are rated as the best statistical agency in the world.

    Our data serve a very useful role in the functioning of our country, allowing Canadians to make informed decisions and governments of all levels to develop appropriate policies. We take this role very seriously indeed.

    As always, our focus at Statistics Canada is on data quality—which includes key features such as relevance, accuracy, timeliness, accessibility, interpretability and coherence.

    And, finally, I take this opportunity to thank all those who give us their data. It is because of them that we can produce statistics that benefit all Canadians.

    Munir A. Sheikh
    Chief Statistician of Canada

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