The impact of deep budget cuts at Statistics Canada is becoming increasingly evident. Economists are complaining about the quality of data in several key areas, including the labour market, residential housing and demographic statistics; in particular, this third area is suffering from the discontinuance of the long-form census. Unfortunately, however, there are no signs the Conservative government is reversing its cost-cutting stance toward the agency.
The latest example to garner attention is a survey of 25,000 companies that Statistics Canada conducted in 2012 to assess hiring needs and skills gaps in Canada. The $4.6-million survey was conducted by Statscan for Employment and Social Development Canada, but the funding ran out before the data could be analyzed and a report completed, which means the results have never been published. The work may still be done, if "someone has some funding and wants to carry it forward," Statscan's director of labour statistics, Alison Hale, told The Globe and Mail.
There is much debate about whether and where Canada has a shortage of skilled labour, and the workplace survey was intended to provide concrete information from an employer's perspective. In a complex world, governments and business must rely on good statistical data to operate, and good-quality surveys provide crucial information. Senior politicians say they glean valuable anecdotal information about labour shortages from their meetings with business groups and constituents, but those impressions can only supplement, but not replace, proper statistics.
There is no mystery why Statscan has had to scale back its work and even entirely eliminate at least three dozen reports on a wide variety of subjects that it previously produced on a regular basis. The organization has lost almost $30-million from its budget in the past two years and has cut 767 employees, or 18 per cent of its staff. The cuts are part of a broader campaign of cost savings throughout federal government departments, but the job reductions at Statscan have been particularly steep and swift, and have had an impact that should not be ignored.
Those using Statscan's data are becoming increasingly vocal about their disappointment with inadequate data in key economic areas, but their complaints have had no effect. With the discovery that funding cuts have led to an absurd situation in which expensive work is left half-completed, surely it is time for the Harper government to start listening and restore adequate funding so Statscan can operate effectively.