Many will have seen news yesterday about large cutbacks in the works at Statistics Canada. On the basis of the news that lots of PSAC members had received notices that their jobs may be “affected,” a number of pro-Statscan commentators rushed to say that the agency needed to be saved because it provided such fantastic, non-partisan analysis.
Well, yes. But yesterday’s notices appear not to have gone to any analysts, since they are not PSAC members. The employees who got notices would appear to be the ones involved in data collection, field interviews, data processing, etc. Not to put too fine a point on it, these units are the ones that make Statistics Canada a target, because they are unbelievably expensive.
I have had occasion in the past to compare prices between a private sector data collection agency and Statistics Canada. Using exactly the same methodology, Statistics Canada costs were between two and three times that of the private sector agency. On any given survey, that’s going to be a seven-figure difference.
Now, obviously, quality costs money. And Statistics Canada, just by dint of being itself, has some advantages over a private sector provider in terms of getting higher response rates (people are a lot more willing to stay on the phone with “Statistics Canada” rather than some outfit running out of RackNine). But it’s not that big a gap; in the project in question, the difference between our project and a comparable one Statistics Canada had done was about twelve percentage points (65% vs. 77% if memory serves). Every percentage point matters, of course, but that’s a lot of money per point.
Besides, it’s not as though private sector firms are incapable of dispassionate and highly professional data collection. South of the border, data collection and analysis of the entire suite of post-secondary education surveys (the National Post-Secondary Student Aid Survey, the Beginning Post-Secondary Survey and the Baccalaureate and Beyond Survey) conducted by the U.S. Department of Education has always been awarded via competitive tender. As anyone who has used these studies knows, the work is world-class.
And, who knows? If budget cuts for surveys are significant enough, then Statscan might have to get serious about pursuing more solutions based on administrative rather than survey data, a development which – as I’ve argued before – could actually improve the quality and timeliness of the information.
So while the Tories’ past behavior has given all Canadians cause to worry about the honorability of their intentions, let’s not jump to the conclusion that a budget cut is necessarily a disaster. It might actually open the door to a better statistics agency.