Chief statistician resigns over government's failure to 'protect the independence' of StatsCan

Statistics Canada's chief statistician Wayne Smith has resigned, saying the department's "independence" has been compromised by the transition to an integrated information technology system managed by Shared Services Canada.

'I do not wish to preside over the decline of ... a world-leading statistical office,' says Wayne Smith

Chief statistician Wayne Smith announced his resignation to Statistics Canada employees in a written statement on Friday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada's chief statistician has resigned in protest over what he says is the federal governments' failure to protect Statistics Canada's independence. 

Wayne Smith says the government's decision to create Shared Services Canada and centralize all information technology services across government has compromised Statistics Canada's ability to fulfil its mandate. 

"I have made the best effort I can to have this situation remediated, but to no effect," Smith said in a note to the National Statistical Council, which advises him. "I cannot lend my support to government initiatives that will purport to protect the independence of Statistics Canada when, in fact, that independence has never been more compromised,"

"I do not wish to preside over the decline of what is still, but cannot remain in these circumstances, a world-leading statistical office."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Friday that Smith will be replaced by Anil Arora, who works as assistant deputy minister, Health Products and Food Branch, at Health Canada.

Shared Services was created by the previous government to centralize and standardize information technology across the federal government in a bid to save money. It has struggled to meet expectations with several agencies, including the RCMP and the Canadian Forces, which have complained of data centre crashes, red tape, bad customer service and unpaid bills. 

Smith said he had issued a warning that ever since Statistics Canada began relying on Shared Services for its IT, the research department had begun losing control of the information it collects from Canadians through operations such as the long-form census.

In the note, Smith argued that Shared Services holds "an effective veto over many of Statistics Canada's decisions concerning the collection, processing, storage, analysis and dissemination of official statistics through denial or constructive denial of essential services." 

"Statistics Canada is increasingly hobbled in the delivery of its programs through disruptive, ineffective, slow and unaffordable supply of physical informatics services by Shared Services Canada," he added.

Failure to convince government

Smith wrote in a separate note to staff that he tried to convince the Liberal government to correct the situation.

"I have not succeeded," he wrote.

"I believe it is the professional duty of a national statistician to resign if the independence of the national statistical office — as envisioned in documents endorsed by Canada such as the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and the OECD Recommendation on Good Statistical Practice — is compromised."

 'I think we do need to re-examine this whole approach to trying to centralize government services and cut costs.'- Erin Weir, NDP MP

In a statement issued by her office, Public Services Minister Judy Foote said the government "is committed to effective, efficient and secure service delivery to Canadians through modernizing government operations."

"Modern IT is an important service to support the work of Statistics Canada and protect Canadians' private information — something our government takes very seriously," the statement quoted Foote as saying.

"Shared Services Canada and Statistics Canada continue to work together to provide Canadians with accurate, secure and reliable statistical data."

'Botched' implementation

Erin Weir, the NDP's critic for public services and procurement, wants the Commons government operations and estimates committee to reopen its study of Shared Services when Parliament returns so Smith can appear and answer questions. 

"It's quite a dramatic and troubling development for the chief statistician to resign in protest; it really calls into question the Liberal government's promises to make Statistics Canada independent again," he said. 

Weir said "all the possibilities need to be on the table for consideration," including the dismantling of Shared Services if it proves the agency cannot be made to work.

It might seem to make sense to centralize systems across government, he added, but issues with Shared Services and the Phoenix pay system have demonstrated that making these systems work is a challenge the government may not be able to meet. 

"In both cases the federal government botched the implementation and we have these huge boondoggles," Weir said. "So I think we do need to re-examine this whole approach to trying to centralize government services and cut costs."

The Conservatives refused to comment.  

'No outstanding operational issues'

In a statement, Shared Service Canada's director of public affairs Stephanie Richardson said "There are currently no outstanding operational issues between our two departments."

"SSC's enterprise data centre provides the data security required by Statistics Canada. This will reduce outages, incidents and delays," she said. "SSC employees cannot access the statistically sensitive data in the enterprise data centre space allocated to Statistics Canada and have no visibility into the contents of the data, as it is fully encrypted and access to the data is controlled by Statistics Canada."

Smith follows his predecessor, who also resigned in protest of government policy. In 2010, Munir Sheikh resigned as chief statistician of Statistics Canada over the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census and its replacement with a voluntary national household survey.