I hope to make you happy today, sir.
Mr. Chair, thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on Bill .
The last time I appeared before this committee was August 27, 2010, on the issue of the long-form census. I went back and reviewed that testimony and found that what I said then I really want to say again, so I'm going to quote myself, I'm afraid, and perhaps bore you all.
First of all, I start off by saying I've never been partisan. For five years, I was president of the Institute for Research and Public Policy, and then, I quote, “I spent over 30 years in the public service of Canada. I served seven prime ministers. I was the Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet to Mr. Chrétien, but lest you think that somehow taints me as being a partisan in anyway”—remember this was the last government I was talking to—“the first order in council naming me to the deputy minister ranks was by Brian Mulroney, and I ended my career in the public service loyally serving Prime Minister Harper”.
In the spirit of that non-partisan public service, my objective today, again, is to try to help the committee deal with the government's objectives, as well as the opposition's objectives. I think both can be met. Although the government and the opposition have switched, my point is as applicable today as it was then.
My first point is I'm not partisan, and the second point is that statistics are a public good. I quote myself, “That's a technical term, but it's a good one. [They're] used by a wide array of real people: banks, charities, and public health authorities.” The state can collect and analyze statistics at lower cost than requiring everyone to collect their own. One person using statistics does not impede others from using the same ones, and that's what makes statistics a public good.
My next point is that the Statistics Act should minimize the use of coercion, which I think was an issue back in 2010. We should be minimizing intrusiveness and maximizing the privacy of the data as much as possible.
What I meant then was that “you can remove jail terms”, but “you can review the questionnaire and minimize the intrusiveness of the questions” as well, “and I would add to what the National Statistics Council has said, you can increase the penalties for the divulgation of private data.” So this secrecy of data provided to Statistics Canada is fundamental and important. “I think anybody who releases census data inappropriately should be seriously fined.”
My next point is that the governance of Statistics Canada can be improved. The higher principle is, quote, “...to ensure the integrity of the statistical agency. I think the events over the course of ...raised questions about this larger significant issue. I think the committee should take its time...to consider the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics.”
“To my surprise, there are [such] principles”, but in 2010 many of those issues were raised “about who's responsible for methodology in collecting statistics. There are several principles in that UN charter that deal with independence, methodological integrity, and the role of politics”.
I said in 2010 to this committee, “You might consider—and I'm not suggesting this is 'the' answer, but it's 'an' answer—amending the Statistics Act to make clear that the Chief Statistician, who is a statutory officer named in the Statistics Act and appointed by Governor in Council, has the sole responsibility for methodological and technical issues.”
However, I also think—I thought then, and I think now—there is a legitimate role for politics in statistics—politics, but not partisanship. Statistics Canada is a:
...department of government that reports to the minister and...many questions around the choice of questions [for the census] are political. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Chief Statistician should be the only person to comment on methodological questions in government and have the obligation to inform the chair of a parliamentary committee, or someone in public, of his views on methodological questions. I would urge the committee not to play partisan games with an important institution of governance.
Those comments in 2010 are as apt today as then, and I stand by them. It's through that lens that I reviewed Bill , and I want to make four points.
One, statistics should not be a partisan issue. The efficacy of the agency and the integrity of our institutions should be important to all parties. The bill does not appear to me to be particularly partisan. It revalidates the independence of the agency.
Two, statistics are indeed a public good, and it's highly appropriate for the state to collect and analyze statistics, so I'd support the objectives of this bill. It reconfirms the legitimacy of the collection and analysis functions of the agency.
Three, in minimizing coercion and reducing penalties for violation of the act by removing jail terms, this bill meets my objectives and, I would suggest, the legitimate objectives of this committee.
Finally, the changes to the governance structures of the agency strike me as appropriate. Creating the statutory council and legislating the independence and responsibilities of the chief statistician for methodology are apt.
I would just note that there's a trade-off here, Mr. Chair, between the independence of the agency and the need for more direction from government, when it's a department of government that already is there. The more independence you give the agency, the more formally in statute the relationship has to be articulated. Thus, I think this is a very good piece of housekeeping to modernize the Statistics Act. While I have strong views on other parts of the bill dealing with independence and directives, I'll await your questions to deal with them.
Thank you, and I'll be happy to answer your questions.
First of all, I would like to thank the committee for inviting me to come here today and share my thoughts with you on Bill . It's good to be back at this committee after almost seven years, when I appeared following my resignation as chief statistician.
I think it would be useful for me to set a context for my comments on Bill and proposing changes to the Statistics Act. An official statistical agency must have the utmost trust of the users of this data. To achieve this objective, both the government and the official statistical agency should play their parts.
For its part, the agency must strive to achieve excellence in the production and dissemination of needed data. I can say, based on my experience, that the agency has always tried to do that. On the part of the government, it needs to find the appropriate mechanisms to make the official statistical agency accountable to the citizens of the country, while at the same time ensuring that the agency is appropriately independent and avoids political interference, both in fact and in appearance.
Avoiding political interference is important because Statistics Canada is in the business of producing facts, not in the business of policy-making, where political decisions are normal. Political interference can damage the trust that citizens must have in the official agency that is producing the data, which could make all official data suspect for users.
Turning to Bill , I would like first of all to commend the government for setting the objective of increasing the independence of Statistics Canada and for introducing legislation to that effect. Let me now offer some comments. In doing so, I apologize to the committee, in that I have actually more questions than I have answers.
The existing Statistics Act is flawed, in that it gives the authority to make technical statistical decisions to the minister responsible for Statistics Canada. Bill rightly shifts some of that responsibility to the chief statistician. I'm pleased that the government has proposed this important change in proposed subsection 4(5).
However, the bill does not stop there. It allows the minister to send a public directive to the chief statistician in cases where the minister disagrees with the chief statistician on these matters. This is in proposed subsections 4.1(1) and 4.2(1). I understand fully that this is done to preserve accountability; however, it does raise a number of questions. Let me mention just two.
If a chief statistician is perceived not to have made appropriate decisions on statistical matters, so that the minister needs to intervene, how can the government afford to have such a chief statistician stay in the job for five years? Next, as an example, given that Statistics Canada is a national statistical agency and not a federal agency, as I understand it, what happens if a minister orders the cancellation of a survey that is of critical importance, say, to a province?
As I just mentioned, another proposed change in the bill is a fixed five-year term for the chief statistician. Presumably, the purpose of the five-year fixed term is that the chief statistician should be able to withstand political pressure.
However, let me mention that I am not aware of any such problem ever happening in the long life of Statistics Canada, but it may happen in the future, of course. I am, however, aware that the makes changes to the ranks of the senior civil service to match the best people to the types of deputy minister jobs that exist. This prime ministerial prerogative includes the chief statistician at this time. This raises the question whether it is worth sacrificing a known benefit that is part of a Prime Minister's authority at the moment to achieve a potential benefit with an uncertain and very small likelihood.
Another important proposed change is the establishment of the statistics advisory council. Its members would be appointed through an order in council and could be asked to provide advice to both the and the chief statistician on issues related to the "overall quality of the national statistical system". This also raises some questions. Why does the minister need advice from outside when they have the chief statistician for all such advice? What happens if the minister and the chief statistician have different views on the advice they get, particularly in the context of the chief statistician's five-year term? Is there a risk that a government would make politically motivated appointments to the council? Let me emphasize that, if a council is indeed established, it is of the utmost importance that it should be set on the right foot at the start of its life.
Let me now turn to the question of how things could have unfolded if this law had been in place in 2010 at the time of the cancellation of the long-form census. There were two issues running at that time, if I could remind the committee members. First, the inappropriateness of cancelling the census, which seriously reduced data quality, as I warned in my resignation statement. The second issue was the nature of the statements made by the minister in response to the criticism the government rightly received for making a very bad decision. These statements led to the resignation of the chief statistician.
On the first issue, regarding the cancellation of the long-form census, I have not found anything in Bill to suggest that things would have been different in 2010. The census would still be cancelled. Let me emphasize here that I am assuming that section 21 of the Statistics Act overrides section 22. If it does not, and my assumption is incorrect, I think the law should be clarified on that.
This raises another question. Given what we went through in 2010, and perhaps one of the reasons we are all gathered here today, is there not a need to avoid repeating that problem? On the issue of the nature of the minister's statements that led to the resignation of the chief statistician, I fully understand it is not possible to legislate that a minister cannot say those types of things.
Thank you very much, and thank you for the invitation to appear before the committee to offer some thoughts on Bill .
I've served on the National Statistics Council since 1996, but my remarks today are very much my own opinions.
I prepared and submitted a brief to the committee, and I understand that it has been translated and circulated, so I'm going to use my brief opening time this morning to highlight some of the recommendations I made in that document. There won't be time to go into at length the rationale behind the recommendations I'm making. If there is time and interest in the question period, I'd be pleased to provide additional comments on the reasoning behind my recommendation.
Let me say at the outset that I think Bill represents an important and valuable first step toward modernizing the Statistics Act. In particular, Bill provides for a less detailed and prescriptive governance framework for Statistics Canada. This more flexible governance framework means that the chief statistician and the agency at large will have more independence and autonomy to make informed, impartial professional judgments about statistical programming, the methodology to be used, and the interpretations to be applied to the data they collect.
I think the bill also clarifies the accountability relationships that Statistics Canada must maintain with the government, with Parliament, and with the public. In the past, these matters were largely governed by long-standing practices and conventions. Some of those conventions and practices are now being codified in the form of this legislation. Therefore, my recommendations are not to approve the bill, but I think there are a number of areas covered by the bill where improvements could be made. I'll go through those very quickly.
In both the backgrounder to the bill and the remarks by the minister, the government is saying that the contents of this bill align with the fundamental principles of official statistics of the United Nations. I think it would be better, in fact, if a preamble were added to the bill to indicate that this is the foundation for the contents of the bill. Such a preamble would serve both a contextual and a constructive role in the interpretation of the statute. It would confirm the spirit of the law and help with the interpretation of any ambiguity therein. It would provide a foundation for the development within Statistics Canada of a culture of independence, impartiality, and objectivity in the production and publication of official statistics. Such a preamble would also provide a basis for discussions and negotiation between the chief statistician and officials of the government when issues of independence arise.
The second point I would make is that the bill presumes a policy operation split. In other words, the policy remains the prerogative of government and Parliament, whereas operational and technical matters are supposed to be the domain in which the chief statistician and other experts at Statistics Canada prevail.
As already mentioned by the previous two speakers, the bill, I think, needs to create greater clarity regarding those instances in which the responsible minister believes a technical and operational matter is of such importance that it rises to the level of becoming a matter of national interest and the minister can issue directives to Statistics Canada. I think in that instance there should be a requirement in the law that such directives be tabled in Parliament and be subject to a 60-day notice and comment period so that there would be debate about the appropriateness of government involvement with an operational matter.
There is also authority given to the minister to issue more general policy directives that are binding on the chief statistician and the agency. In that case, I think it would be better if those directives came not from the minister solely on his or her own behalf but were subject to prior approval by cabinet. I suggest a procedure for that.
The further recommendation I have on this general policy directive is that no such policy directive should amount to an indirect amendment to the Statistics Act in any fundamental way. Amending the Statistics Act is a responsibility of Parliament.
I then turn to the position of the chief statistician, which I think has a crucial role in all of this, the catalyst that makes for a high quality national statistics system. I think that the provisions proposed in Bill should be amended to provide for an advisory panel of three eminent or distinguished persons with appropriate background knowledge to conduct the recruitment activity and to review the applications, nominations, for the position of chief statistician. That panel would then recommend one name and place two alternative names before the Prime Minister for possible recommendations to the cabinet.
If the Prime Minister found none of the nominees suitable, he or she could nominate their own choice, but would be required to give reasons for not accepting someone from the list provided by the panel.
Turning now to the proposed Canadian statistics advisory council, I think there is a very real ambiguity here about the role of this new council that could lead to problems down the road.
I think two questions of clarification need to be asked. The first question is, does the government understand whether the council is to serve primarily a representational role or is the new council presumed to play a governance role, serving as the eyes and ears of the minister by overseeing the performance of the agency?
The second question is, as order in council appointees, will council members see themselves more as agents of the government than as trustees of the long-term interest of the national statistical system?
What happens if there is a disagreement between the council and the chief statistician over what advice should go to the minister? I have not read or heard a clear statement from the minister on these points. A greater clarity would be advisable.
On the basis of that clarification, I would suggest that proposed subsection 8.1(2) of the bill regarding the new Canadian statistics advisory council should be amended to provide for a greater number of members, possibly in the range of 20 to 25 members, including a chairperson appointed by the Governor in Council to reflect a wider range of interests served by the statistical programming of Statistics Canada. Recruitment should be done on the basis of an open process of application and nomination.
In conclusion, I would make the following point. Legislation that distributes authority and creates structures and procedures is the starting point for achieving an appropriate balance between independence and accountability for Statistics Canada. Even more important, however, is the appointment of a chief statistician and other leaders of integrity within the agency who are committed to strengthening an already strong shared culture within Statistics Canada that's based on the principles and values of a high quality national statistical system.
Thank you very much. I look forward to any questions.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I appreciate the opportunity to appear before this committee. Let me begin with a brief introduction to the National Statistics Council.
The NSC was created 30 years ago to advise the chief statistician on matters affecting the Canadian statistical system. It complements the more focused work of the subject area advisory committees and the federal, provincial, and territorial working groups.
It is my strong view that we've been very useful in pressuring StatsCan to look at new areas of data collection, for example, finding ways to reduce respondent burden and to make StatsCan's data more widely available to users.
With the controversy that attended the 2011 census and the national household survey, the council also began to consider more explicitly and even speak out on issues that could affect the continued quality of the overall Canadian statistical system.
The importance of this bill, Bill , lies precisely in addressing some of the issues that were raised at that time.
We believe it is fundamentally important for our statistical system that we get this right. For the information produced by a statistical agency to be fully used, the quality of the information must be trusted. That information must be relevant, accurate, timely, and available widely.
Similarly, for Canadians to provide information—this is the other side—freely to a statistical agency, that agency must itself be trusted. From looking at both Canadian experience and that of similar countries, trust is dependent on several aspects of an agency's operation and its mandate.
Specifically, the statistical agency must operate transparently, with strongly protected guarantees of independence in terms of exercising its professional judgment.
There must be a relationship of trust with the individual providers of the information to the statistical agency. They need to understand why the information is collected, how decisions about what is collected are made, and above all, there needs to be a commitment to reducing the burden on respondents and an assurance that the information they provide will be held in confidence.
A statistical agency earns both its credibility and its social licence, if you will, by its success at embodying those attributes.
I'd like now to turn to the bill and the council's response to the direction of the bill.
The first is simply removing imprisonment as a possible penalty for individuals refusing to respond to mandatory surveys. The council has publicly endorsed removing the threat of imprisonment from the initial debates over the census in 2010 when that issue was raised, and we continue to do so.
Secondly, moving to the second topic, confidentiality, this is a central issue for the council because it is essential to holding public trust. If public trust is undermined, the provision of information is undermined. In contrast with our view that the potential punishment for not responding to mandatory surveys is too severe, the council has also suggested that penalties for unauthorized disclosure of data by employees or designated research should be monitored to make sure that they constitute a significant deterrent. In this I echo fully Mr. Cappe's earlier points.
Maintaining confidentiality is far more than simply having appropriate penalties, however. There are also matters like the security of computer systems and data protection procedures. This committee has already heard about further securing computer systems and the changes at Shared Services Canada.
The council does not possess the expertise to make a judgment on secure computing environments. However, we do believe that the core practices that ensure the protection of personal information flow in part from corporate culture. We can attest, from our experience, that confidentiality is a deeply rooted value in the culture of Statistics Canada.
On the aspect of confidentiality related to making census returns available after 92 years, the council agrees that the benefits to historians and genealogists outweigh concerns that this change might affect people's willingness to respond to the census. We simply haven't observed significant public concern over this.
Turning to strengthening the independence of the chief statistician and Statistics Canada, many of the changes in the act are consistent with advice that the National Statistics Council has given.
The council has agreed that giving the chief statistician a fixed, potentially renewable term during good behaviour increases independence.
As with some of the statements made in earlier hearings by former chief statisticians, we agree that there should be a wide and aggressive search conducted when this position is to be filled. Again, this is consistent with the statements today from Professor Thomas and Mr. Cappe. As well, we suggest, as does Professor Thomas, the use of a senior panel in making the selection.
The balance between independence and accountability is critical. The council believes that on questions such as appropriate methodology and other issues of professional judgment, Statistics Canada and the chief statistician should be responsible. Conversely, Statistics Canada, in particular the chief statistician, should have operational control of the agency, subject to the financial, personnel, and administrative disciplines governing federal organizations generally. The incumbent should be responsible to propose the statistical program of the agency, subject to written direction by the minister on topics and priorities.
The importance of transparency and written directions I think is part of the pivotal mix, because it means that there is not necessarily a cost, but it makes clear where the responsibility lies. Transparency can help ensure this balance is sustained. The chief statistician's annual report through the minister is one element, as is the chief statistician's ability to make public the directives that are received from the minister.
The final element in balancing independence and accountability is the creation of the Canadian statistics advisory council. The function of that body is significantly different from that of the current National Statistics Council, reflecting the changed position of the chief statistician and of Statistics Canada.
Through their annual public report, this council can offer a more independent view of issues and challenges facing the Canadian statistical system. While it's not a board to oversee StatsCan, it can increase the transparency and general understanding of the competing pressures facing the statistical system. It can also provide the government with an external view of operational and professional issues facing Stats Canada.
As you also heard earlier today, it means that appointment to that body is a critical issue because, given that new role, one that is different from that of the National Statistics Council, it's important that it is well understood how people are appointed and that people feel confident they can act in an independent manner. While we are intensely proud of the work of the National Statistics Council and what it has done over the years in terms of stakeholder engagement, ongoing professional consultation, and outreach to current and potential data users, all of those elements have become increasingly part of StatsCan's operating values.
The advisory council fills a new role, one which would be difficult for the current statistics council to perform, frankly, and the creation of that new entity is I think an essential and pivotal part of the promise that this bill holds in transforming it from just letters into a well-operating and successful change to the Canadian statistical system.
I await your questions. Thank you.
What I see mostly, in the bill, is a fixed five-year term for the chief statistician. There's really not much detail as to how the chief statistician is selected.
The point I was trying to make was that the new bill, by changing the balance of accountability, political interference, professionalism, raises a lot of questions. There are some questions that I think are truly important. Someone, hopefully, will give those questions some thought. I don't have the answers.
One of the questions I raised is, if you trust in the Clerk of the Privy Council as the adviser to the PM for putting the right person in deputy ministers' jobs, and if you do trust that person to make an effort to avoid political interference, given that trust, do you really need a fixed term? When I look at the long history of Statistics Canada, my impression is that the existing system of appointments by the PM, with recommendations from the clerk, has worked really well. In circumstances where you have a mismatch between a job and a person, there's flexibility to change that.
As an example, think about some really bright star in the ranks of the civil service who would become a great chief statistician, compared to the one who is in the job, who is doing a reasonable job, but he's there for five years.
I can go first, if you like.
I agree with you that our system of responsible government is based on the prime minister and ministers of the crown being required to explain and defend what they've done in public and to be held accountable ultimately through elections, before the House of Commons, and even, dare I say, the Senate. You can't expect ministers to be completely indifferent to the scope of questioning in a census, the types of questions they're asked, how intrusive they are, and the range of things that are inquired about. I think there has to be some final role for the cabinet.
What I was suggesting in my brief was, on that relevant section, proposed subsection 4.1(1), where it authorizes the minister to intervene on a technical operational matter, they made clear that the chief statistician be allowed to voice objections in a public manner to that, and that it's not fatal to their reappointment.
Undoubtedly, when you go to work the next Monday morning, it's a little tense between you and the minister and the government. There is no doubt about that. This is a last resort. It comes after long negotiations. It's to recognize the fact that there's no clear dividing line between policy and operations. It's a blurred line. In the mind of the minister, this may look like technical matters to the chief statistician, because in mind of the minister this is a sensitive policy matter that he heard a lot of conversation about from the people he interacts with. I think there's a way to strengthen the protection against a repeat of 2011.
That's one of the points I've tried to make. Statistics is a tool. You work with it; you take the best information that you have, and you go forward. I know, for example, with the homelessness surveys and so on, people were saying they may not have had that data, but people have found their ways around it and there has been success that has come through that.
With the long-form census, as far as farmers are concerned, if you get that it's as though you've drawn the black straw. They're after you constantly about why you haven't got this in yet or why you haven't done that. Prior to that it was, “Well, you're going to go to jail,” if you were hauling your own grain across the border.
If these are the situations you have, it's about the timing of them. Lots of times when these things are sent out, you're on your tractor. You may have your phones and you're all linked up, but I know this is one of the reasons why in the agricultural communities you say to give you a break. Of course, in your case, you say, “I have all this information they're asking for anyway. Now they want me to go back and drag all of this out and complete all these forms.” Yes, it's important, but again, there are a lot of different ways of analyzing that.
The other thing I want to talk about is the census questions that are there. When they come from government, from any government, they can be couched in the type of commentary that you might want. There may not be any questions on how much carbon tax you are paying right now, because they might want to talk about something different from that. They may want to talk about green tech and where that is going, but they may not want to talk about clean coal technology and all of these sorts of things because those are outside of a policy position that they have.
How do you on your council look at these sorts of things and say that you know which is the political side of this and which is the natural resource side and how best that should be presented? How do you then tell the ministers or whoever is making those decisions to back off a bit here, that you know what the difference is, and you know what the situation is?
I've tried to make the case that the chief statistician position is different from that of the regular roster of deputy ministers, in my opinion. That individual needs to be part of the deputy ministerial community, meet regularly with the clerk of the privy council, and be involved in the discussions of the statistical needs of the various departments and agencies of government. In other jurisdictions—as Ian McKinnon mentioned, we talked to people in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand—there is a separate process of appointment.
I think that we should have a more customized, tailored appointment process for the chief statistician. There was one private member's bill that even suggested that individual should become another officer of parliament or agent of parliament. That's a terrible idea, a very bad idea, but—in recognition of the status of Statistics Canada as a “statutory agency”, which implies more independence, more impartiality, and more autonomy from the central decision-making apparatus of government—I think we should change the appointment process.
It will be hard to get any prime minister, regardless of which party is in power, to give up the prerogative to make these appointments, so I'm just saying we need a different advisory mechanism while retaining the right of the prime minister to select the final name.
Someone mentioned earlier the possibility that there might be advance consultations with leaders of all recognized parties in the House of Commons. That could be done, but it will slow down the process and we already have a significant backlog of order in council appointments. These sensitive positions like chief statistician should not be held on a probationary basis for very long.
I think there's a way here to give some opportunity to get better background knowledge about someone and make a qualified appointment. Getting the right person is critical, as I said earlier.