Thursday, July 22, 2010

The 2011 Census debacle

This is Tony Clement. He is the Canadian minister of Industry and oversees the department I work at. Normally I don't concern myself with politicians because everything they do is geared to pleasing someone of influence and trying to get re-elected so they can stay in power, but once in awhile you read about, or are affected by some boneheaded, short-sighted move on the government's part that just make you shake your head. The proposed change to the 2011 Census is one of those for me. Regardless of if you understand the issues and problems with going to a voluntary form versus a mandatory one, just consider this:

The last Chief Statistician of Canada, Ivan Fellegi, spent over 50 years with Statistics Canada (no, that is not a typo, he started there in 1957 and spent the last 23 as Canada's Chief Statistician before retiring in 2008). He says scrapping the long form is a bad thing and if that guy says something about statistics the government should bloody well listen. 

Munir Sheikh, his replacement in 2008 had been very quiet on the issue until tendering his resignation yesterday. He said in part:

"I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

It can not.

Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister."

When someone resigns a post a day after their boss says they have their support, it's saying something. So it seems like he thinks it's a bad thing as well. For the record. I think it's a bad thing too (although I can't afford to quit over it).  I hope to hell other people who can make a difference join these guys and step up to the plate on this one. A lot of people who work there care about the data, and doing the best job they can, and preserving this time series.

So I guess what I'm saying is, if one doesn't understand the issues, it helps to seek advice and council from those that obviously do, and digest what they have to say before thinking you know everything like our politicians. And if the government should make a mistake, own up and reverse it and move on. We all make them. Saving face is dangerous.
What really burns me is that Clement acted like Statcan was endorsing this whole deal, which it did not. What appears to have happened is that our government decided to cancel the Census without any thought or foresight, consulted Statcan at some point after the fact to see what the replacement options were, disastrous as they may be and picked one. Also, as he says in this interview, the fact that he's using Twitter to measure his support on the issue is moronic! In fact, that's exactly like a volunteer census. You only get a minority of biased people who feel strongly about the issue that way, not to mention the fact that non-technical people won't be able to contact him there. Incidentally I read up on him for the first time today and found it interesting that he won his riding by only 28 votes.

Hey, probably it's just his boss (our prime Minister) making him do it. I hear that happens sometimes. 

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