It’s a false economy to cut Statscan’s budget
Editorial, The Globe and Mail April 22, 2014
|Federal Public Service||Statistics Canada + SSO||Canada|
|Year||Population||Change (%)||Population||Change (%)||Population||Change (%)|
Source: Population of the Federal Public Service, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
As questionably competent as StatsCan’s become in recent years, it’s worth highlighting one of the reasons it’s come to be so. As previously discussed, Canada’s Federal Public Service (FPS) staffing had grown significantly out of proportion with the general population in the years prior to the current federal government’s cuts, announced in Federal Budget 2012. The increased FPS staffing could partially be justified as catch-up following years of understaffing, a result of the previous federal government’s austerity budgets in the 1990’s that slashed then froze FPS levels for years.
In context, Statistics Canada (and Statistical Survey Operations) staffing is troubling. Not only did it not keep up with general FPS staffing levels since 2000, it didn’t even keep up with general population growth. StatsCan’s staffing levels fluctuate with Census cycles, so it’s best to compare pre-Census years, 2000, 2005 and 2010. 2000-2005 saw general FPS staffing increase at nearly three times population growth; StatsCan’s had increased slightly greater than population growth. By 2010, general FPS staffing was still increasing at three times the rate of population growth; StatsCan’s had declined relative to population growth. According to Treasury Board, Statscan’s staffing level in 2013 was 13% below it’s 2000 level.
Some argue technological advances should have made it easier and more cost-effective for StatsCan to conduct surveys and produce data. While improved OCR, web and other computing technologies certainly could improve efficiency, without getting into details, the reality is quite different. Survey administration is labour-intensive. For example, potential savings from self-enumeration are offset by the increased cost of telephone / in-person follow-up, as such surveys are more likely to produce poorer response rates and quality. Also, staffing cuts are part of broader budgetary restraint, translating to less capital investment and, more importantly, less training. With many older, less tech-savvy workers (at StatsCan and in the broader FPS), that’s a major problem.
Not surprisingly, StatsCan’s faced some difficult decisions and made some unfortunate choices. If it seems economists have become increasingly vocal of late about their lack of access to data, that’s a result of one of those choices: StatsCan has increasingly come to rely on ‘cost-recovery’ and private contract work for funding.
There’s an obvious conflict of interest when a public institution like StatsCan increasingly relies on private funding – especially so when that privately contracted work is shielded from public scrutiny. For context, Statistics Canada meets its clients’ information needs by integrating their questions into existing surveys or by designing custom surveys for them. (More on that in the near future…)
There’s also an obvious moral hazard when a public institution like StatsCan has an incentive to increasingly withhold data from said public – for example, by not updating public-use microdata or limiting the information disclosed in published tables. Requests for what previously would have been publicly available information are increasingly processed as private ‘custom tabulation’ requests on a ‘cost-recovery’ basis.
This goes beyond false economy; it’s imposed ignorance.