“Give Me Back My Compulsory Long Form Census Questionnaire.”

Although we are in the later innings of this controversy, I still want to add my thoughts on Canada’s very own census flap. With no fanfare the government announced that it would bring to an end the compulsory census long form and substitute instead a voluntary version. I doubt that the Government imagined for a moment the extent and intensity of opposition that this decision has provoked.  This is not the kind of issue that normally galvanizes public attention and it’s not likely to turn into a ballot question – “give me back my compulsory long form census questionnaire” is not a very sexy rallying cry.  But every day new voices are added to the opposition, pressing for the decision to be reversed, voices from inside and outside of government,  from almost every sector of society and across political viewpoints and, I expect, partisan preferences.

Some are worried that they won’t be able to do their jobs well without the information.  Some are worried that the most vulnerable citizens will be most hurt because the information on their needs will be lost.  Some worry that governments at all levels will be less effective and, absent information on what works and for whom, less accountable.  Some are worried that Statistics Canada, an important and world respected institution, is being diminished.  The “protesters” do agree on two things: the detailed information provided by the survey is enormously important to Canada and the proposed voluntary alternative just doesn’t cut it – it costs more but cannot provide the reliable, comparable data needed.  The importance of the information and the inadequacy of the proposed voluntary approach are articulately covered by Armine  Yalmizyan of The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and in many articles in the mainstream media and blogosphere so I won’t go over this ground.  Interestingly, one of the most powerful pieces is from The National Post’s Kelly McParland – just in case anyone was thinking that this is an issue of left and right.

So, given the deeply held and varied concerns, what is driving the government’s decision?

First off, this issue is not new.  In the U.S, in particular, a number of often vocal libertarians – or at least people deeply distrustful of government -  have long opposed the census as non-Constitutional and a threat to liberty.  Not long ago, state officials in Texas expressed concern that they would not receive the federal money owing them because of the relatively high number of anti-government residents who did not complete their census forms thus leaving their region under-represented.  The anti-census movement  reflects distrust not only of government but also of science and research. Many “fundamentalists”  of whatever stripe, already certain of their answers,  either reject evidence as unnecessary or fear it as a threat to their certainty.  In any case, the census issue is not new but, until now, has never entered the mainstream of politics.

Second, Canada is not alone here.  Not only does the issue have a long if marginal pedigree in the U.S. but, more recently, conservative politicians there and also in the U.K. have “mainstreamed” the question, all pretty much using the same language of defending privacy against the incursions of the state.   We shouldn’t be required by government to answer detailed questions about our lifestyle or income or ethnic background, etc., or so the argument goes.

Concern about constraints to the state’s coercive power and intrusion into our private lives is a healthy thing.  Not so long ago, political and social scientists liked to say that Canada was a more pro-government, deferential society than the U.S.  John Meisel called Canada a “public enterprise” society.  But all that has pretty much changed.  For almost a century  we have seen the role and reach of government grow almost unabated – and with it we have seen dramatic improvement to quality of life.   At the same time,  however, a more savvy and educated citizenry has become less deferential and more concerned about limiting unwarranted government intrusion and this is largely a good thing – though the excesses of distrust we are seeing now are worrisome and dangerous.

How intrusive is the long form?  We have already indicated that it is compulsory and it asks private questions  – but it only happens every five years and only for twenty percent of respondents so each of us has a reasonable chance of never being asked and the odds of being asked several times over a lifetime are relatively small.  Few have complained and, while our Privacy Commissioner was apparently not consulted by the government on this decision,  she seems satisfied with Statistics Canada’ s current approach.  Statistics Canada, in fact,  has an unblemished record of protecting the privacy of the citizens who answer their surveys.   On the whole, then, the long survey is surely less intrusive than say the arrest of innocent civilians in Toronto or even a machine that can see through our clothes at the airport.  It’s simply not good enough to say that  this survey has been canceled because it is intrusive (and, by the way this is not the first Statistics Canada survey canceled by this government).  We know that, for the right reason, this government or any government for that matter will be willing to limit our freedoms, our privacy.   The decision thus  inevitably reflects a view about what reason is good enough; that is, the decision in this case must reflect the belief that evidence, reliable information is not worth even this minimal  level of intrusion.

So is the information worth it? Let’s agree at the outset that no empirical data are perfect, that policy is never shaped only by evidence and that a critical view on research is always a good thing.    But  relatively reliable, comparable, credible information is crucial for efficient and accountable government.  Even for  those who want less government such data are crucial for philanthropists and voluntary organizations,  the private sector and engaged citizens.   In a knowledge economy, a knowledge society, we cannot afford to be cavalier about, of all things,  knowledge.

On balance, then, it is hard to understand the government’s reasoning here.   Perhaps it was simply a miscalculation, a lack of awareness of the importance and uses of the information and a mistaken belief about the efficacy of alternatives.  Perhaps it was a bit of pandering to those who distrust experts and research.  Perhaps it reflects the often uneasy relationship some governments have with evidence – they need it but they don’t necessarily like it -  after all, evidence can challenge assumptions and create pressures to act and to alter course.  But why speculate on the reasons (any more than I just did)?  When disparate bankers and business leaders,  journalists, charitable organizations and academics, think tanks and government workers  – people who rarely agree on anything – agree on the importance of the compulsory long census for the economy, for our democracy, then surely the issue is not just whether it is, minimally, intrusive.  Surely the onus is on the government to explain why this information is not as valuable as its users claim – or, better still,  to restore the long survey.  “Give me back my compulsory long form census questionnaire.”

Comments
12 Responses to ““Give Me Back My Compulsory Long Form Census Questionnaire.””
  1. frank Graves says:

    An excellent if understated synopsis of the issues. As a professional researcher I am dismayed by this development . But I believe that this latest episode is just a symptom of a broader malaise which is increasingly infecting our society . Ironically , some 50 years after the coining of the term Post Industrial Society , where knowledge and intellectual capital occupy “axial” significance, we seem to be seeing a withdrawal into know nothingism and seat of the pants decision making styles. The role of accurate empirical indicators in guiding societal decision making traces its way back to at least the encyclopoedists and their notion of political arithmetic. Notably the term “statistics” is rooted in “measures of state” . The evolution of statistical data to inform decision making has advanced dramatically over the past century. There have been dry wells dug in the search of an ideologically neutral calculus of decision making ( the social indicators and social accounting movement of the seventies is an example) but overall the idea that sound knowledge of social and economic conditions was a precondition for good policy and management in an increasingly complex and turbulent world seemed to be a given .
    In recent years, this assumption of the critical role of reason and evidence seems to be under siege. In the Government of Canada , social research has been largely abandoned. But the problem is not unique to Ottawa. Everywhere statistical standards are eroding badly . In a world of survey monkey , poll daddy and the ubiquitous online polls found on most media websites, scientific sampling and measurement are not even remote considerations . The voluntary , self selected samples which produced the Reader’s Digest “poll” debacle in the last century , and led to the development of scientific survey research are increasingly becoming the norm , even within the polling and market research industry .
    So it is refreshing and important to hear authoritative figures like Alex remind us of the continued need for sound statistical evidence to chart our way through the turbulent and complex new society we live in . I am not entirely sanguine that these voices will be heard and I fear the ultimate costs will be poorer and less fair decision making . If there is one clear lesson from the past it is that seat of the pants, intuition and ideology are all notoriously bad methods for sound decision making at the societal level.
    Frank Graves

  2. I think some survey organization needs to conduct a survey where all participants will be asked, “Would you be willing to answer sensitive questions? Yes or No?” If yes, the surveyor will ask general questions that one would find on the long census form. If no, the surveyor will ask if that person would be willing to answer general questions. If yes, then the surveyor will ask the same sample questions that one would find on the long census form. If no, then the person would be asked to answer statistical questions about age, language, gender, and general income. All participants would be asked the same questions. The whole idea is to see if there is a difference in responses between those who are willing to answer sensitive questions and those only willing to answer general questions, even though they are the same questions.

  3. Wayne Young says:

    Being a former stat’s analyst and presently a dataminer by trade ! I have never heard so much misinformation coming from the opposition of late. I am 100% behind Mr. Clement and own persoanl political partisan views. I do not belive that making the long form voluntary can be anywhere nears as bad as some people have been making out. We as a country have become indoctrinated to an extent I would never have thought possible. We do not need the result sets that people are claiming. It is almost enough to make me vote Conservative next election. I for one am tired of Big Brother having the impact on our society that he does it is way past time to stand up and say enough is enough!

  4. Mark Szekely says:

    The government’s reason for this change is becoming abundantly clear – they were simply lacking that “Big Divisive Issue” that politicians yearn for.

    A time-tested political strategy has been to divide Canadians (pro-Quebec versus anti-Quebec, pro-choice versus pro-life, etc). In the case at hand, our government has opted to divide Canadians along Intelligence lines.

    Opposed are the Experts (or “elitists” as our government prefers to call them) who actually understand the issues at hand. In Support are the “Too Lazy to Mark an X” voters.

  5. Great post! I feel many countries should develop this habit of surveying people! as we really don’t know there problems and they can’t come to us for answers. The Canadian government proves to be the best! Thanks for sharing!!

  6. stan squires says:

    I am from vancouver and i wanted to comment on the long census form.We are living in a class society and so who benefits from the long form.It is not the working class.The canadian gov. is no friend of the working class.The information that the gov.gets concerning the working class of canada is used against them.The workers of canada have to fight for their rights every step of the way from cradel to grave.The gov. gives them nothing.By giving the gov.all your personal information only helps them to keep the working class down.

  7. To me, cancelling long-form census was a blunder move by Stephan Harper to gain more votes of ordinal people. Ipsos, a well known survey company, released the results of people opinion on the issue of mandatory versus voluntary on long-form census, and people are just split on the matter. Adding that now there are more researchers, activists, etc etc against the Harper’s government, I call his move a blunder move!

  8. Martin Hunt says:

    I comment very late here, but the thing I don’t understand is how a question about how many bedrooms your house has could possibly be considered intrusive, especially since the identity of the responder isn’t a part of the data. None of the so called intrusive questions are intrusive. I’m surprised that those in favour of the compulsory long form census have raised this obvious question – what is so intrusive about the census?

    The compulsory aspect is probably the real basis for withdrawing the long form census – but many things in our society are compulsory. We are compelled to obey the law. We are compelled to pay taxes. We are compelled to obey environmental regulations. There is a tiny minority that rejects any sort of compulsion (so they claim – incoherently) and it seems that the Conservative is giving in to this minority and ignoring the will of the majority.

    • himelfarb says:

      I could’t agree more with all your points.

      • Roger Reimer says:

        I don’t know why the government has to know so much about me it is none of there business they know how many bathroom I have because the city has a plan of my apartment I live in. They know how much I make by my income tax, what religion I am is personal.
        They should just as my credit card company they know it all even where i spend my old age pension,

      • himelfarb says:

        But it’s not “the government” – it is a national statistics agency that protects the anonymity of your information even from other government departments and agencies so that they can produce information on the country, on needs and emerging challenges, on what works and what does not, on how some parts of the country are doing as compared to others, helping government and ngos plan and develop policies and helping us to hold governments to account. There has never been a single instance where Stats Can has failed to protect the privacy of the information citizens have provided. By the way, thankfully in Canada no one but CRA knows what you fill in in your tax returns. They are forbidden to share that information!

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