Policy Making Without Evidence is a Guessing Game: Cuts to Statistics Canada a Costly Error

By Vass Bednar and Mark Stabile, Expert Advisors, EvidenceNetwork.ca, writing for Troy Media, http://www.troymedia.com.

For many of us, it started with the census. In a controversial move, our government switched from a mandatory to a voluntary census in the summer of 2010. The former Statistics Canada chief, the media and the research community reacted with shock and largely opposed the change – to no avail.

Recently StatsCan quietly continued this trend when it published a media advisory listing programs identified for elimination or reduction to meet savings targets that were announced in the Economic Action Plan 2012 ($33.9 million by 2014-15).

These reductions have been masked under the compelling veil of “efficiency.” In reality, the cuts promise considerable future costs because they compromise the tools used to understand the state. This, in turn, has a high probability of leading to decisions that are no longer based on evidence, and therefore are likely to be ineffective uses of public money.

Reductions to Statistics Canada activity are not new. Preceding the census cuts, the agency moved three of four key longitudinal surveys that were initiated in the 1990s to the “inactive list”: the National Population Health Survey; the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, and the Workplace and Employment Survey. These information-rich surveys involve repeated observations of the same people over long periods of time and began tracking Canadians in the early 1990s. We are no longer measuring outcomes for these individuals.

Last week’s cuts, which affect 34 surveys, brought an end to the fourth of the longitudinal surveys started in the 1990s: The Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID), which provides an understanding of the economic well-being of Canadians.

We have now halted the collection and analysis of our most informative longitudinal information on our labour force, on the workplace, on health and health care, and on child well-being. Add to this our universal census of the population. How might Canada expect to meet the policy challenges of the future when we no longer have the ability to understand where we are today?

Statistics Canada is the primary source of Canadian data, a federal government agency formed in 1971 to produce statistics that help us better understand Canada, its population, resources, economy, society and culture. For many decades it was considered among the top statistical agencies in the world. The surveys started in the 1990s were the envy of U.S. researchers looking to better understand how our jobs, workplaces, health and children were changing over time.

As our government incrementally eliminates popular data sets, to whose hands might we toss this statistical torch? There is certainly a shifting onus as the state slowly shrugs off primary responsibility for the collection and maintenance of widely available and shareable descriptive information. Will we be able to compensate as a society before it’s too late?

In some cases, it is appropriate for the public sector to turn over responsibilities that can be adequately performed in the private sector. The government need not run airlines or gas stations or even mail companies.

Is statistical information on the country an appropriate addition to this list? Or does a combination of privacy concerns, the necessity for information on the entire country, the benefits of having a single entity that houses the expertise to collect, store and protect these data, and the necessity of accessible information for government researchers, and private corporations alike lead to data collection and dissemination being a public good? Does the social benefit of these data far exceed the private benefit that a private sector company might realize?

We would argue that there is a strong case to be made for a publicly funded and administered statistical agency that collects the kind of robust information required for government, business and individuals to make the best decisions they can.

For without being able to accurately describe the characteristics and trends of what that “problem” is, society will simply have to make policy in the dark. Evidence-based policy-making requires just that – evidence – standard, reliable metrics whose quantification and legitimacy is widely agreed upon. In their absence, policy-making at all levels and in every sector will be as expensive as it is hopeful, while policy actors are forced to gingerly “guess and check” over time.

In the absence of good data, our ability to fully comprehend complex policy issues will grow anecdotal and inconsistent. As admirable as the quest for efficiency in the public sector is, it can’t be worth the confusion that it will promise in the future. Truly realizing the kind of savings that Statistics Canada claims to strive for in this budgetary cycle means continuing to invest in the foundational information that has wisely informed our nation for decades.

Vass Bednar is an Action Canada Fellow and graduate of the School of Public Policy and Governance. Mark Stabile is the director of the School of Public Policy and Governance, a professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, and an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca.

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