Canada’s National Statistical Council, the official advisory body on statistical issues, is calling for the long-form census to be reinstated for the 2011 census. The Wellesley Institute has joined with a long list of business, academic, research, policy and governmental groups that have expressed concern that the federal plan to cancel the mandatory long-form census will deprive Canadians of vital evidence that is needed for good public policy. In order to address some of the critical concerns raised during the ongoing national debate about the census, the National Statistical Council is recommending a detailed review and public consultation leading up to the 2016 census. Here is the full text of the National Statistical Council’s statement:
The National Statistics Council, the senior, external advisory group appointed by the government of Canada to advise the Chief Statistician, is deeply concerned by the effect of the announced changes to the 2011 Census. We believe that the changes will harm the integrity and quality of the Canadian statistical system. At the same time, the Council recognizes that concerns about intrusiveness and confidentiality should be addressed.
It is urgent we find solutions that protect the quality of the information Canadians depend upon while responding to concerns over the way in which the Census is conducted.
What is at risk?
First, the proposed, voluntary National Household Survey will suffer from significant respondent self-selection bias. Even with substantial efforts to mitigate the inevitable decline in response rates, this will degrade the data upon which much of the Canadian statistical system is based.
The proposed changes will likely result in Statistics Canada’s not being able to publish robust, detailed information for neighbourhoods, towns or rural areas. Much of the analytic work done by municipalities, private firms, health agencies, highway and transportation planners, school boards and large numbers of other groups that depend upon small-area knowledge and data will no longer be possible.
Our second concern is the potential loss of vital benchmark information. The mandatory ‘long form’ means that Statistics Canada has an accurate benchmark for the demographics of populations who are difficult to reach or who are less likely to complete a voluntary survey. This, in turn, means that sampling and weighting strategies for subsequent, voluntary surveys can compensate for differential response rates and produce more reliable information.
The importance of having Census benchmarks available is readily apparent when one considers some of the populations that we know are more difficult to reach – young people making the school-to-work transition, urban Aboriginal populations, the affluent, and new immigrants.
Without solid benchmark information, subsequent surveys and analysis rest on an uncertain foundation. The Bank of Canada cautiously stated that, while they do not use long-form data directly, they feel they will have to evaluate “the impact that any proposed change would have on the reliability and the quality” of economic data they use. The Bank’s statement exemplifies the repercussions the changes may have over the broader Canadian statistical system.
The National Statistics Council also recognizes the concern that Canadians not be overburdened by governments compelling them to respond to onerous or intrusive demands for unnecessary information. On a number of occasions, the National Statistics Council has urged changes and worked with Statistics Canada to reduce such respondent burden. With respect to the Census, the Council has strongly supported changes to data collection methods that enhance privacy such as mail-in and on-line options.
In addition, the Council strongly supports Statistics Canada’s commitment to the complete confidentiality of respondent information and it recognizes the agency’s undisputed success in reaching this goal. The Council shares the Privacy Commissioner’s Office view that Census questions are ‘inherently privacy-invasive’ and that the questions must be kept to what is necessary for good government and that the information gathered must be protected with the appropriate safeguards.
This focus on minimizing intrusiveness and protecting privacy is important to retaining the confidence of Canadians. We are satisfied that Canadians trust Statistics Canada and its procedures and that Canadians provide answers they would be unwilling to provide to a private survey firm. The Council also believes that confidence must be sustained through ongoing actions.
In a matter of a very few weeks at most, it will be impossible to change the 2011 Census or the National Household Survey. Meanwhile, debate over the future course of the Census has become heated without moving towards a resolution that meets both concerns about privacy and intrusiveness, as well as the need to maintain the quality of Canada’s statistical system. What then do we recommend?
The National Statistics Council recommends:
1.That, as part of a formal consultation process beginning with the 2016 Census, Statistics Canada examine each Census question to ensure that it, at a minimum, meets one of the following tests for inclusion in the Census:
a.It is required by legislation or Cabinet direction,
b.It is needed for small-area data uses for which there is no alternative data source,
c.It is needed to create benchmarks for measuring difficult-to-reach groups and ensuring that subsequent surveys or data derived from administrative sources can be sampled or weighted to reflect accurately the overall population,
d.It is needed to assess progress on issues of national importance, for example the economic integration of new immigrants, or
e.It is to be used as a basis for post-censal survey sampling of relatively small or dispersed groups, for example, urban Aboriginals or people with health conditions that limit their activity.
Even if a question met this requirement, it would still face tests of its overall importance to the Canadian statistical system and the needs of data users as weighed against cost and the intrusiveness of the question.
2.The Council is aware that other countries have conducted successful censuses without people having to face the potential of jail as a punishment for not filling out census forms. We, therefore, recommend that the Statistics Act be amended to remove jail sentences as a possible punishment for not filling out the Census. At the same time, the Council recommends that jail continue to be a punishment for those who wilfully break confidentiality provisions.
3.That the Census for 2011 include the long form being used for 20% of the population as the only way, given the very short timeframe, to safeguard the quality of the Canadian statistical system.
4.That the question series on household activities (question 33 in the 2006 long-form Census) be dropped as it was the question that occasioned the largest number of objections among the substantive questions and since it fails to meet any of the five tests outlined in point 1.
The National Statistics Council believes that these steps, taken together, can respect the valid concerns voiced by Canadians about privacy and intrusiveness, while ensuring that the vital information that currently flows from the long-form Census can be maintained and continues to serve Canadians’ needs.
Chair, The National Statistics Council