Flanagan on the Census

Tom Flanagan, Steven Harper’s guru in younger days and a political sherpa who helped guide the rise of the New Right in Canada in its early days, has put in his two cents on the census affair.

It is a thoughtful piece, if somewhat predictable. But it leans on two important facts in an erroneous way. In both cases, my guess is that he is simply not aware of the facts, rather than making an outright attempt to be misleading.

First, he suggests that the time is long overdue for census information collecting to move firmly into the 21st century.

He probably does not know that the long form census questionnaire in 2006 was available on-line, as will be the National Household Survey in 2011. After all, only 20% of households would have had the option to answer these questions, in any form at all, last time round. Many households, though, still prefer to fill out forms in hard-copy; and many will still need face-to-face help, as we have heard in witness testimony at the Industry Committee hearing on July 27.

The considerable technological security/privacy issues related to on-line surveys that must, by law, provide full confidentiality were resolved in partnership between Statistics Canada and Lockheed Martin in the run-up to the 2006 Census. Lockheed Martin has been retained for a smaller role this time around.

The involvement of Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defence contractor, was the primary reason people in Canada (and the U.S., which followed a similar route) refused to fill in the census questionnaire.

Why was Lockheed Martin was chosen, out of all the private contractors available? The answer deserves and requires more time than I have today; but the point is that census refusniks in Canada did not fail to respond, as the government claims, because they found the state coercive, or the census questions intrusive. They refused because they thought Lockheed Martin was going to be privy to their information. The Lockheed Martin name is undoubtedly a red flag to some, and reasonably so. Turns out it is also a red herring. Statistics Canada takes its duties around confidentiality very seriously. Indeed, it’s known to be a bit of a fetish around the agency. (As fetishes go, this one makes me a little more at ease than not!)

Secondly, Dr. Flanagan raises an important issue regarding response rates among First Nations peoples. He notes, rather derisively, that the response rate is rising, and dramatically so. He does not provide any context or history behind this trend.

It is in large part due to the patient and ongoing process of mutual listening that has been taking place among many (but not all) First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities and Statistics Canada. There has been long-standing antipathy between some First Nations communities and the government, with the census issue falling into a broader “get off my lawn” positioning. But there is also a growing understanding that these data can be put to good use, both within these communities and with others. Indeed, there is precious little systematically collected information other than that derived from the census long form questionnaire about these communities.

The fact that the census is still developing as a reliable source of long-term data for and about these communities is a good sign, not a weakness. Both the process of census-taking and the nature of the questions have changed over time, for these Canadians and for the rest of us. (I provided a link to the fascinating history of the Canadian census in an earlier post.) The iterative nature of this process with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people is still a slow and evolving dance. What everyone involved understands is that, without this information, we have no comparable data between our first nations peoples and the rest of Canadian society; and it is critically important to gauge the progress of all Canadians, particularly those who have been given such a raw deal for so long.

4 comments

  • Thanks for reminding me why I am not always a big supporter of Statscan’s way of conducting itself.
    I thought handing over census data collection to an American military contractor was pretty dumb, and still think so. I wrote the Chief Statistician about it. It was as dumb as adopting user fees for data retrieval, which also discredited Statscan in my eyes.
    Flanagan asks why governments should be allowed to ask questions, private researchers would not be allowed to ask. The answer is that governments were elected, and can be replaced when they get out of line.
    The distinguished panelists used to select the new G.G. are not that representative of Canada; they are representative of the Conservatives. The incumbent G.G. has been a credit to the country, she will be a tough act to follow.
    Heads of government agencies should be appointed by the Public Service Commission. Some time ago that body lost out on staffing issues to Treasury Board in internal battles, which is too bad. The Depts. should not be able to recruit people they want, adding like to like. From top to bottom the PSC should run the staffing process, recruiting and promoting according to arms length criteria. Cronyism has been a serious problem in appointments within government service everywhere. The PSC was designed to get around biases by bringing outside expertise to bear on staffing and promotion.
    Frankly I do not know why anyone with a reputation to protect would want the head Stats job, unless they could negotiate another approach to the census as a condition for taking the job.

  • I agree 100% with Duncan. It simply was a gigantic mistake to let a private contractor even close to the data. The optics are what matter, and whoever made that decision within or outside of Statcan was just plain did not see the big picture- or potentially they did, but did not care what the outcomes were. A real lack of vision on that one.

    I also agree that user fees are nothing more than a means to control who gets access to the data. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars to produce the data as a public good. But then all that apparent democracy of having data gets lost in the details.

    Sure some profit seeking outcomes do exist but to charge data to everybody is just a plain old bad controil of who has access to data and what kind of research is performed. The data is not cheap and the pricing policy is also apparently quite an ad hoc process. Go to one division within statcan and they charge a certain amount, go to the census and they charge another, and all through the process not a sliver of centrality over the pricing.

    The data liberation initiative made some progress but ultimately it provides just a sampling of the real data.

    Many of us on here within progressive organizations know this all too well.

    Lastly, when it comes to picking the next Chief Statistician, I wish people would decide that the process must become a democratic process that a term limit will ensure if we make a mistake we do not have to wait 30 years for a new chief. Say what you want about Ivan, but I still feel he was in there way way way too long. In such a powerful position, I do think a bit more of a democratic process is an imperative.

    And yes until Statcan is fixed because as far as I am concerned, it is now broken – by the ideological 5 month attack by Harper, Clement and the rest of the non-fact based medieval types . Imagine- all those years spent trying to build up an institution that sits amongst the many critical engines of modernity destroyed in such a short time frame. Truly it is a marvel amongst our ideas and notions of what progress is or ought to be.

    pt

  • Regarding privacy, Statistics Canada has loudly and repeatedly proclaimed that no Lockheed Martin employees ever had access to the personal information on census returns.

    That may be technically true, but probably misleading. The information we have from a StatsCan insider is that there were Lockheed Martin employees buzzing around StatsCan headquarters, with keys to conference rooms, who ceased to be Lockheed Martin employees on a Friday and were suddenly StatsCan employees on Monday. This info from an insider is, of course, unconfirmed, but I have every reason to believe it.

  • I was trying to ascertain when somebody outside of Harper’s inner circle knew that the census was going to be hijacked.

    If you look at this link, it states that as of November last year, there is no official sign that Statcan has any plans of implementing the new voluntary survey.

    http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/rpp/2010-2011/inst/stc/stc02-eng.asp

    It is clear that Statcan had several other priorities for the upcoming year. Now for survey designers out there- it takes quite a long time to implement a change of the size in which the tories were implementing.

    I can only imagine the hectic pace that the current new survey is receiving- again at what cost. I can only imagine what happened to these previous annual objectives.

    Hmmm

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