Restoring the mandatory long-form census in time for the 2016 survey is doable, say two former chief statisticians of Statistics Canada, but the incoming Liberal government will have to move swiftly to make it happen.
The return of the long form, promised by Justin Trudeau during the election campaign, would yield vastly more reliable data and cost less than running another national household survey, the former heads of the agency say.
"It should be possible. I am certainly very hopeful. But [the decision] needs to be done very soon. It's an enormous logistical operation," said Ivan Fellegi, chief statistician from 1985 to 2008.
It's "no problem" to reintroduce the long form in time for the 2016 census, said Munir Sheikh, head of the agency from 2008 to 2010. The questions needn't change, he said – just the instructions at the top. "All they need to do is put on the front page that this is mandatory."
The other step is for "cabinet to approve it as a census, which they can do at any time – it would take a matter of seconds."
Researchers are already pressing for action. "Undoing these mistakes cannot wait; the time for action is now as Statistics Canada is on the cusp of launching the 2016 census," says a letter signed this week by 61 academics and directors of research centres, including Statscan's former assistant director Alain Bélanger.
Issuing an immediate order in council "is the only way to implement the long form in time for the census six months from now," they said. "This must be one of the first moves made by the Liberal government of Mr. Trudeau. It would mark a clear break with the previous government and ensure that future social policies can be made on scientific grounds rather than ideological dogmatism."
The Conservative government cancelled the mandatory long-form census in 2010, citing privacy concerns, in favour of a voluntary national household survey. The move drew ire from across the spectrum, from city planners and chambers of commerce to social scientists, public health units, consultants and economists, who said it has diminished the quality of information about Canada, particularly at the local level. Many have discarded using the survey altogether.
The replacement survey – at an extra cost of $22-million – has lower and uneven response rates. The response rate for the 2011 NHS was 69 per cent compared with 94 per cent for the 2006 mandatory long-form census. It also is more difficult to compare trends over time. As a result, decision-makers are left with a poorer basis upon which to develop social and economic policies.
The Liberal platform pledges to "immediately" restore the mandatory long form – and make Statistics Canada "fully independent."
Mr. Sheikh, who resigned over the controversy in 2010, said having the agency operate at arm's length to the government is an even more crucial step. "I would say that is more important than restoring the long-form census, because that really was the cause of the problem, that the government can interfere with Statscan on issues like this.If you have an independent agency, the census in the future wouldn't be the cabinet or minister's problem, it would be the chief statistician's problem."
Mr. Sheikh said "anyone who uses data" will benefit from the return of the census. The biggest beneficiaries would be governments at all levels, "which have to base their policies on reliable data. And then of course researchers, who use this data to determine social outcomes, the condition of households in terms of income, poverty, unemployment, the state of housing, transportation needs, the needs of ethnic minorities, language, the employment equity act. Any kind of social and economic policy issues you can think of really are related to the census."
As well, "the census provides an anchor to all other surveys, will have much more reliable data to check all other survey results against that."
Both former chief statisticians said the switch could save money by reducing printing costs and expenditures associated with the labour required to administer and analyze the separate household survey. The NHS was sent to about 4.5 million Canadian households while the 2006 long-form census was sent to 2.5 million dwellings. Running any census is a massive undertaking that typically takes years to plan. The total projected budget for the 2016 census – which had been planned as a mandatory short form and voluntary NHS – is $701.8-million.
Statistics Canada wouldn't comment on whether it's possible to make the changes in time for the 2016 census. "It's a policy matter, and we can't comment," said spokesman Peter Frayne.
Other experts say it can be done. "It is inherently easier to return to a well-tested methodology" such as the traditional census, said Ian McKinnon, chair of the National Statistics Council. "If any statistical agency in the world can do it, Statistics Canada can."
Reinstating the census "soon, both sends a signal of change of policy, and interest in basing policy on evidence – evidence-based decision-making, which I think is very healthy," said Charles Beach, professor emeritus at Queen's University and head of the Canadian Economics Association. Moreover, "doing something that is both cost effective and more useful, it's an economic no-brainer."
He abandoned using the NHS for his work, on income inequality, labour market polarization and trends in the middle class.
Neither Mr. Sheikh nor Mr. Fellegi said they were interested in being chief statisticians again. But both said they would be willing advisers on future steps to improve the quality of the country's statistics.
Mr. Fellegi has several words of advice, including the creation of a panel of experts who would recommend qualified candidates for future chief statisticians, and enshrine the UN's principles on official statistics in Canada's Statistics Act.