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The Black Hole

Federal government scrapping the census long-form: What will it mean for evidence-based policy?

BY BETH | JUL 08 2010

A friend of mine just sent me a link to this news story and it’s gotten me quite livid:
Tories scrap mandatory long-form census
StatsCan says quality of data will suffer

Every five years, Canada conducts a census, with the next one scheduled for 2011.  In the past, every household received the short census form, which contains just a few questions (like number of people in the home and their age and sex) and 1 in every 5 households received a mandatory long form.  The long form contained questions about a variety of things, like income, education, and ethnicity, and provided a lot of really important information about the population of Canada.  For example, I work in health care and we use census data all the time.  Knowing the makeup of our population allows us to make informed decisions about providing health care to meet the needs of the people living in our region. All levels of governments (municipal, provincial and federal), community agencies, and other organizations use the data from the census long form to develop evidence-informed policy.

But the ability to do that now at risk, as the federal government has, apparently without consulting anyone, decided to scrap the mandatory long form, citing that the long form represented “what most Canadians felt was an intrusion into their personal privacy in terms of answering the longer form” (Source) – though I haven’t seen from anything I’ve read thus far how they determined that this is how “most” Canadians feel.  Instead, they are replacing it with a “voluntary household survey” that will be sent to 1 in 3 households, the members of which can choose to complete – or not to complete – the survey.  This raises very serious concerns about the quality of the data – the people who choose not to respond to the long survey may be different from those who choose to respond to it, which will result in skewed information.  Which means we won’t have the data we need to make policies and provide appropriate services.

“Senior statisticians at Statistics Canada have conceded the change will make it more difficult to obtain reliable, detailed information.” (Source)

All of this brings up questions about politicians’ understanding of the importance of data and evidence-informed practice, not to mention their ignoring the scientific experts on the matter – in this case, the statisticians at Stats Canada. As David Eaves noted in his article, “Why you should care about the sudden demise of the mandatory long census form”:

This is a direct attack on the ability of government to make smart decisions. It is an attack on evidence-based public policy. Moreover, it was a political decision – it came from the minister’s office and does not appear to reflect what Statistics Canada either wants or recommends. Of course, some governments prefer not to have information; all that data and evidence gets in the way of legislation and policies that are ineffective, costly and that reward vested interests (I’m looking at you, tough-on-crime agenda). ” [emphasis mine; Source]

In another news article on the topic I read:

Liberal MP Marlene Jennings “argued that Clement has shown in postings to the social media site Twitter that he does not understand how the mandatory nature of the long-form census allows Statistics Canada to properly weight the short form data. Clement debated sample size and data weighting with other posters, including an economist.

“(That’s) something Mr. Clement seemed not to understand when he was tweeting yesterday, so maybe he should take a stats course,” she said” (Source)

This lead me to check out Clement’s Twitter stream, where he referred to having a mandatory (as opposed to voluntary) long form as “state coercion” – I guess it’s fine to have the state “coerce” you to complete the short form – or, you know, obey any of our other laws – but they draw the line at the long form?
Now, as Dave mentioned in his most recent posting, we here at The Black Hole don’t want to just complain about problems, but rather want to focus on what we can do about addressing those problems.  To this end, I’d like to note that the Liberals are demanding the Conservatives reverse this decision to scrap the mandatory long form and, if they don’t, to introduce legislation to protect it themselves.  Personally, I’ll be writing to my own MP and Industry Minister Tony Clement to inform them about why the long form is so vital.  And I’ll be writing to some Liberals to suggest that they stick to their guns on this one and introduce legislation to protect the mandatory long form.

Update: There is now a petition on this issue. Check out: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/keep-the-canadian-census-long-form.html

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  1. Sonja / July 9, 2010 at 08:11

    But… but… you need a *random* sample to perform statistical analysis! It’s disheartening to imagine how much money will be spent distributing the “voluntary household survey” to generate such low-utility data.

  2. Sonn / July 9, 2010 at 17:51

    What has this got to do with Science trainees in Canada ? Other than random tory-bashing?

  3. Jody / July 10, 2010 at 04:43

    Hey Beth, I couldn’t agree more that the long form census form is an essential tool for population research and guiding government programs that serve Canadians. I will be contacting my MP for sure. thanks for sharing as I wasn’t aware of this.

  4. Dave / July 10, 2010 at 07:15

    Sonn – to call this random Tory bashing is pretty unfair. The census data is a tool that many scientists and social scientists use daily in their research. While it might not be directly relevant to whichever field of science you are in or thinking of when making this comment, it has a huge effect on trainees in epidemiology, public health, civil engineering, and even industry bound trainees.
    This blog is on issues affecting science trainees and a move like this which strips information from the public domain and many researchers is something we definitely see as having an effect.
    Hope this helps explain a little why we found it important to post.
    Dave

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