It's been a bumpy stretch for Canada's national statistical agency – and now, its chief statistician is firing back over what he says are misconceptions on everything from the quality of its labour force data to the usability of its national household survey.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Globe and Mail this week on income statistics, First Nations labour data, reliability of the national household survey (NHS) and priorities for the agency, Wayne Smith said the quality of Statistics Canada's data is as solid as ever. And despite budget constraints, the agency aims to enhance information-gathering in some areas such as wages, job openings, energy statistics and children's health.
"People somehow think – because they believe the massive budget cuts – that we're sitting here crying in our beer, paralyzed because we have no resources to do anything," Mr. Smith said in an interview at his Ottawa office. "That's far from the case. This is a very dynamic organization."
Statscan has long been regarded as one of the world's top statistical agencies. That reputation has been hurt – for some – amid concerns over the agency's independence and that the NHS is not as reliable as the cancelled mandatory long-form census.
Meantime, monthly jobs numbers are perceived to have become more volatile – a claim Statscan refutes. And last summer, the agency had to make a major correction to its July jobs numbers .
Since 2008-09, "we're down by $32-million" in net terms, he said, adding that the cut is less severe than it seems because it no longer has to pay for some services. Like other government departments, it is facing a budget freeze in the next two years (outside of census spending). But cost recovery – or funding the agency gets from outside clients to conduct surveys – appears to be improving. "Relative to where we were, we're in a more positive trajectory."
One of the agency's biggest efforts this year is a large new survey on job vacancies and wages – areas that have long been seen as knowledge gaps in labour market information. Statistics Canada received $14-million from the federal government last year to conduct the mandatory business survey, which will have a sample of 100,000 locations.
The job vacancy component will look at which occupations have job openings in particular regions and the portion of vacancies that are difficult to fill. This release will be quarterly, starting in the fall. The wage component will be released annually, starting next year. It will look at starting hourly wages and wage levels offered to fill vacant positions. The purpose is to give a "general sense to workers of where promising job opportunities are available."
Other priorities for the agency are more regular releases on financial security ("Wealth is becoming more and more important in terms of understanding well-being," he said) and on GDP by city. It's looking to enhance business innovation and energy stats.
Without more resources or financial partners, expanding in some areas may mean scaling back in others. "We would have to reallocate resources away from existing statistical programs," he said.
Low-income trends and income distribution are a data gap the agency intends to fill. Currently, 2012 data on low-income trends are not comparable to prior years, while the agency has cautioned about long-term comparisons on income trends in the national household survey.
For now, he said insights into long-term income trends won't be published as a full-time series until later this year – likely after the next federal election. "Because of various changes in the statistical system, we're temporarily not able to make the kinds of comparisons that we would like to. We will have resolved this problem by the fall of this year," though it could take until November or December.
This lag is a concern to those trying to analyze income trends. "It's very disappointing to say the least, that we're not going to have the numbers for a more consistent data series on so many important questions before a federal election – there's so much attention to what's happening to the middle class, is inequality increasing, is child poverty increasing, are income gaps between generations increasing – especially the income-inequality issue," said Andrew Jackson, senior policy adviser at the Broadbent Institute.
"I have some sympathy for Statscan in terms of whether they have the resources to put into this … and I'm glad they're trying to fix the holes, but it's kind of ludicrous that we look at a lot of key questions and we don't really know what's happened since 2011."
Some economists are concerned over the future reliability of the labour force survey (LFS), saying the cancellation of the long-form census makes it more difficult to compile representative samples of the population (the NHS had lower response rates than the long form). Mr. Smith said the LFS sample redesign – now under way – will be based on the short-form census, the new national household survey and tax data.
"The data is very robust for the purpose of the sample redesign. I'm not concerned about it at all, in terms of it having any negative impact."
He said other Statscan surveys won't become less reliable as a result of the change to the NHS.
The agency has no plans to emulate the United States in releasing its payrolls data on the same day as its labour force survey, Mr. Smith said, despite calls from many economists to line up the publication dates.
Instead, the survey of employment, payrolls and hours will still be published with a two-month lag. Economists have long called for a speedier release date of payrolls data to help them analyze the current labour market and longer-term trends.
Moving the survey to a more timely release date would cost millions more, and potentially leave it more subject to revisions, said Mr. Smith.
"Given the additional cost to the Canadian taxpayer and the additional burden on Canadian businesses in providing the data, I'm looking at it and I'm not seeing anything that would justify it in terms of a better understanding of the current labour market … I would not be recommending it."
Canada keeps diligent track of statistics relating to roofing and eggs. But be it due to a lack of resources, scant government support or challenges capturing rapidly shifting trends, data blind spots remain. Here are some:
First Nations on-reserve labour data
Canada doesn't collect monthly labour statistics on First Nations reserves, which Statistics Canada says is mostly due to high costs of gathering data from remote areas. Data are collected through the census and national household survey – but that's every five years. While it would be difficult to produce monthly data, it would be feasible to run employment surveys on reserves annually, or every few years, Statscan chief Wayne Smith said. It's a question of funding – and whether any department deems this a priority.
Low-income trends and income distribution
This is a knowledge gap the agency is working to fill, after it curtailed the survey of labour and income dynamics. Statscan is working to re-establish a longer time series on income trends through its new income survey, though the process won't likely be completed until later this year.
Unpaid interns and temporary foreign workers
These are "obvious areas where we'd like to know more," Mr. Smith said, though it's tough to capture them in monthly jobs numbers. Details on the self-employed is another area that would benefit from more knowledge. But any additional efforts would need broad, sustained interest from the provinces and the federal government to justify a change, he said.
The sharing economy
It's tricky to capture what's going on in the sharing economy. "The sharing economy is getting a little concerning – people who are working through Uber or Airbnb, they're almost essentially self-employed." They may be showing up in the stats as self-employed, but they're not yet identified as part of this emerging sector. The balancing act for the agency is staying current without "chasing a current fad," he said.
New business formation
Business formation – the rate at which new businesses are being created – is an area the agency is scrutinizing. Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz has cited this measure as a reflection of the health of the economy. "The data we have is not quite as robust as what [Mr. Poloz] is looking for. So we're looking at it."
How Canadian children under the age of 12 are faring in terms of diseases, activity, disability and vaccinations is a major data gap the agency would like to fill.