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Paul Thomas - Modernizing the Governance Framework for Statistics Canada

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From:  Paul Thomas

To:  Concerned Canadians

Date:  October 13, 2017

Re: Modernizing the Governance Framework for Statistics Canada

In many countries, national statistical agencies face political pressures to collect and report on data in ways that fit with the preferred messages of the government of the day.  However, if such agencies are not seen to be independent and impartial, the data they release will lack credibility.

In Canada, Statistics Canada has long been recognized as a professional organization that produces high-quality data.  After the controversy over the cancellation by the Harper government of the mandatory long form census in 2011, the Liberals promised to address concerns about data quality and StatsCan’s independence. Bill C-36 is the result. It amends the Statistics Act, has passed the House of Commons, and is now at second reading before the Senate.

There are parts of the bill that could be improved, but on balance it creates a modern governance framework that strikes a reasonable balance between independence and professionalism within StatsCan.

The existing Statistics Act is outdated, unduly prescriptive and grants too much authority to the minister to interfere in operational matters. The bill grants more autonomy to the agency, including the use of alternative methods of data gathering. It also sets forth a clearer delineation of the respective roles of different actors in the statistical system. In these ways the bill is both enabling and protective of StatsCan’s independence.

As with all legislation, the devil is in the details, and how the various parts of the bill will interact in practice. Only three sets of provisions can be discussed in the space available here.

To ensure responsiveness to government priorities, the bill provides for two forms of policy directives. The first type of directive from the responsible minister would add to, modify or delete programs of Statistics Canada. The second type would alter the operations and methods for gathering data. Both would be made public and in the case of the first type, the bill makes it clear that the Chief Statistician could publicly object. The authority to direct methods, would be used only in rare circumstances, the bill implies, although it does not establish a clear right for the Chief Statistician to reject the order. Further, the minister will have to explain and defend his or her actions.

C-36 also provides a new procedure for the appointment and removal of the Chief Statistician that will enable him or her to defend the integrity of the statistical system. Currently, the position is appointed by the Governor-in-Council, which means effectively the Prime Minister, and serves at pleasure, which means he or she can be dismissed at any time. The new bill  provides for a five-year, renewable term, served on the basis of good behaviour, not at pleasure, and the incumbent may only be removed for cause.

Another component of the new governance framework is the Canadian Statistical Advisory Council (CSAC), a 10-person body that will sit between the minister and the Chief Statistician. It replaces the National Statistics Council (NSC), a much larger group of close to 40 members that has served since the late 1980s as a representative advisory body. With just 10 members, the CSAC cannot serve that representative role. It will not have decision-making authority and seems intended to play a governance or steering role through the provision of advice to both the minister and to the Chief Statistician and by the production of an annual report on the state of the system. Keeping it above the political fray will be essential.

Legislation, structure and procedures only take us so far in ensuring the integrity of Statistics Canada and the quality of its products. Leadership committed to fundamental statistical principles and a culture of professionalism will ultimately be the best defence against unwarranted political interference.

Paul G. Thomas is Professor Emeritus of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba. He has served on the National Statistics Council since 1995 and has chaired the boards of a provincial crown corporation and a patient safety institute.

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