Statistics Canada's technological troubles have become so acute that its chief statistician says they are hampering the agency's ability to carry out its mandate – and he places the blame squarely on one source: Shared Services Canada, the department now running the agency's informatics infrastructure.
Statscan's website has for months been beset by crashes, delays and outages, most notably on July 8, when its main website was down for more than seven hours on the day of the release of the labour force survey.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail at his Ottawa office, chief statistician Wayne Smith said that that outage – along with a long list of other information technology troubles – relates to problems with Shared Services.
"It's had a significant impact on our operations," Mr. Smith said. "Our service to the public has suffered, clearly, in ways that we would rather not have happened. Some of our relationships have suffered. … There's a frustration among our clients."
Canada's statistical agency is tasked with producing quality data and analysis about the country on everything from oil exports to jobless rates, food prices and health outcomes. That mandate, Mr. Smith said, is at risk as tech glitches – stemming partly from a lack of maintenance at its data centre – have caused delayed releases, lost time in conducting quality assurance and higher costs.
If the situation continues, he warned, data quality could be hurt and, if the agency incurs additional costs to boost much-needed capacity at the data centre, it could result in cuts to surveys and programs.
Mr. Smith said the frequency of incidents is growing. On July 8, the agency's main website was down for seven hours and 50 minutes when a power transfer switch failed. "The issue on July 8 was a pure informatics infrastructure issue, entirely under the responsibility of Shared Services," he said.
The monthly jobs release is one of Canada's most important economic indicators, influencing public policy as well as financial markets to the tune of millions of dollars. In a throwback to the 1990s, the agency wound up faxing the jobs report to users of the data.
In an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail, Shared Services said it has increased its focus on service management and improving its capability to resolve "critical system failures." The department said it has a "close working relationship" with Statistics Canada. Regarding the July 8 problems, it said a proposed move to new enterprise data centres "will eliminate this type of incident."
Shared Services Canada was created five years ago in an initiative under the previous government meant to save money and boost efficiency by centralizing IT services. Since then, it has faced criticism, notably from the Auditor-General, who said this year that the department has failed to show if it is saving the federal government money or improving services.
Statscan says it has transferred about $39-million a year to Shared Services over the past five years, plus an additional $27.2-million from its census budget. But Mr. Smith said it is not clear what Statscan is getting in return.
"That system right at the moment is broken. The governance isn't there, there's no clear articulation of what responsibilities or what services Shared Services is to provide to Statistics Canada. … It's eroding our ability to operate effectively."
An inability to resolve its tech problems or make decisions on its needs is affecting the independence of the agency and "has consequences, in terms of our ability to deliver on our mandate to to Canadians. And that's an unusual situation for a national statistical office to find itself in," Mr. Smith said
Canada is the only developed country that Mr. Smith is aware of that does not have control over decisions on its information infrastructure. And the problems come just as demand for data to make evidence-based decisions is growing from all levels of government.
More frequent breakages, problems with its website and aging infrastructure that has not been maintained or given extra capacity for bigger data files all mean that "we're concerned about our ability to operate into the future," Mr. Smith said.
It is not just the chief statistician who is frustrated. Internal memos released under an access-to-information request show a litany of concerns over the impact of the transfer of IT to Shared Services.
The memos, sent by more than a dozen Statscan directors-general to Mr. Smith in January, cite a barrage of problems, including delays, security risks, a lack of transparency in costing and unpaid phone bills. They cite an inability to innovate, a drain on productivity and a lack of oversight and accountability from Shared Services.
They also detail stresses on staff, including increased overtime, workarounds, confusion, irritants and a heightened administrative burden – along with reduced time for analysis of data and impacts on census staff.
One memo from Daniela Ravindra, director-general of industry statistics , said there is a "very real risk" that this year the agency will hit a bottleneck in processing capacity, which will force the delay of "mission critical" releases. "Having to delay their release would be unprecedented and will impact the ability of key users, (e.g. Bank of Canada, Department of Finance, commercial banks, etc.) of making timely decisions, translating into considerable embarrassment to the government of Canada."
Another note, from Lise Duquet, director-general of the informatics branch, said 68 per cent of the agency's "critical and high" IT incidents over a nine-month period "are directly related to Shared Services."
The documents show that Mr. Smith wrote to the president of Shared Services, Ron Parker, on Jan. 6, under the subject line Heightened Program Risks at Statistics Canada: Update, expressing concern over delays in the dissemination of major economic indicators including the labour force survey, the consumer price index and quarterly gross domestic product numbers. Delays and outages in dissemination "have now become regular occurrences, and other infrastructure issues are affecting production," it said.
He said he would notify Deputy Finance Minister Paul Rochon and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz. And he warned that the agency will prioritize "maintaining the quality of the data it releases and therefore may, in future, postpone release of key economic indicators" if disruptions cause a risk to quality.
A Jan. 27 e-mail to Mr. Parker said the agency's dissemination system "remains vulnerable and as of late, unpredictable and unstable," noting that delays of even seconds in key economic releases can have a "significant impact" for financial markets. As the current infrastructure has not been adequately maintained, he said, the production and release of key information such as inflation and unemployment "are unnecessarily being put at risk."
On Feb. 24, Mr. Smith wrote to Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick. This note, under the subject line, Heightened Program Risks at Statistics Canada: Update 2, was redacted.
Statscan aims to post its major economic reports on its website at the same time that wire services in a lockup release their stories, all within three seconds of 8:30 a.m. EST. The goal is that everyone has access to the data at the same time. Web server problems have meant that some releases have seen delays of longer than that – up to 15 seconds. And the data tables – called CANSIM – have crashed, depriving people of conducting detailed data analysis on the day of releases.
One economist at a major bank called the frequent glitches "annoying." Mike Moffatt, assistant professor of economics at the University of Western Ontario, said there have been times he has given up on trying to write a same-day analysis piece, "simply because of site errors on days data was released."
The following emails and memos came through an access to information request about Statistics Canada and Shared Services Canada. The documents show Statscan’s chief statistician asked director generals at the agency on Dec. 22 to write to him about the impact (positive, negative, neutral) that Shared Services Canada (SSC) has had on their operations.
Here are excerpts of some of their responses:
The memos cited positives impacts as well, in areas such as cyber security. But the majority of the feedback about SSC was negative.
In an email to the Globe this week, Shared Services made the following statement, which has been edited for length: