House essay: Information counts in policy-making
Evan Solomon, host of CBC Radio's The House, reflects on the data stemming from the first national household survey since the federal government scrapped the long-form census in his weekly radio essay as heard on May 11, 2013.
How much does information count to governments?
Or maybe, given this week’s controversy around the results from Canada’s first voluntary National Household Survey, how much do we count information these days?
Well, not as much as we used to.
That’s because the response rate that fell from 94 per cent for the mandatory long-form census to 68 per cent for the new National Household Survey.
And that explains why StatsCan has issued a warning.
They say that the NHS estimates are "subject to potentially higher non-response error than those derived from the 2006 census long form."
Meaning buyer beware. The data quality has gone down.
Why? Well, because of what is technically called a "non response bias."
Meaning that errors will be higher in places and among groups that didn’t fill out the survey, skewing the information for everyone.
In this case, there were low response rates from certain small communities, regions, aboriginals, immigrants and visible minorities.
In some cases the data was so unreliable StatsCan didn’t use it, they threw it out, they didn’t count it.
For example, in Saskatchewan there was no reliable data for over 40 per cent of their municipalities.
How do you make good policy on municipal issues, on aboriginal issues, housing, when the data is basically flawed or not there at all?
Temporary foreign workers
But that wasn’t the only data debate raging this week.
According to a new paper just published by Kevin McQuillan, a professor at the University of Calgary’s school of public policy, the government does not have the accurate information when it comes to making policy on temporary foreign workers.
His report titled All the Workers We Need: Debunking Canada's Labour Shortage Fallacy, challenges the government’s claim that there is a massive labour shortage in Canada that requires thousands of temporary foreign workers to fill the jobs.
According to McQuillan, it’s a job-matching crisis.
"I think there are some challenges for sure in the labour market but the idea that we’re facing now or likely to in the near future a major labour shortage in the country, I think is just wrong," McQuillan said.
So how do we judge the temporary foreign worker’s policy based on that information?
Debates about statistics and policy may sound like a bunch of mechanics talking about different kinds of motor oil, but they matter. You can’t drive a society without them.
The government argues the data from the NHS is still good enough.
They believe a mandatory survey that threatened jail time for non-compliance is an invasion of privacy and the voluntary survey is a better method.
After all, it’s used in other countries too. But no one has ever been thrown in jail for not filling out the mandatory census which is why the Opposition says this whole move is a solution in search of a problem.
Whatever side of the political equation you are on, governments are in the business of making policy.
Policy for everyone.
And when there are genuine questions about the fundamental information used to create policy, it’s also fair to ask:
If you are not counted, do you still count?