Mike McDerment is co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based tech company FreshBooks.
The new Liberal government's announcement that Canada will return to the long-form census in 2016 marked a step in the right direction toward what Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains calls an "evidence-based" approach to governance.
As chief executive and co-founder of a technology company, I am happy to see the return to data-driven decision making in our nation's capital. In the modern business world, companies live or die by the quality of their data. But when it comes to the census, I wonder: Will we be asking the right questions? Will we capture the data we need to grasp how quickly technology is driving change, and the pace?
These questions matter because the world is changing faster than many of us are comfortable with. I believe the census needs to change with it. Case in point: More people than ever before are leaving the traditional nine-to-five approach to work and striking out on their own. This restructuring of our work force has huge implications for our economy – I see this first-hand every day.
Over the past decade, I built a cloud-based accounting business centred on freelancers and service-based small-business owners. We began as a classic startup, with me living and working out of my parent's basement in Toronto. We now serve more than 10 million people in 120 countries. Demand for our services is driven in part by profound changes in our economy.
Daily conversations with the freelancers and small-business owners we serve make one thing clear: These people are extraordinary. They are resourceful, self-reliant and far more nimble than any big corporation or institution. They are key to fostering growth, to making the Canadian economy innovative and competitive now and for the foreseeable future.
But it isn't always easy. These men and women are doing business in a world that was not designed for them. Things such as insurance, filing taxes, securing financing or even a personal mortgage are major hurdles. Despite their numbers (more than 10 per cent of Canadians and growing, as millennials chart their own career paths), freelancers are underserved by both public and private sectors. Building a world that better suits their needs is good for the Canadian economy and it starts with collecting better data.
In 2016, the government will reintroduce the census used before the previous government came to power. Adherence to inflexible testing principles and a looming print deadline mean that a more comprehensive survey will not be ready in time for next year. I understand this – it's prudent to get accurate data. But printing? It's 2015. We can file our taxes online; surely, we can a complete the long-form census online.
Perhaps a better question is: Can we afford to go five years between censuses given the current rate of change driven by technology? Just look at Canada's manufacturing, automotive, and oil and gas sectors – rapid change in a fast-evolving world. In today's world, five years is too long to go between drinks of new data, not to mention that five-year intervals translate into 10-year timelines before we can establish a trend. It's high time we pick up the pace.
In the meantime, the 2021 census presents an opportunity to reimagine what a modern census could achieve – a census that captures the nuances of the new economy in something closer to real time. More accurate data collection will allow us to see not just who we are, but also what Canada will need to thrive in this rapidly changing world.