Important statistical information has become so unreliable that the government would be better off making policy decisions based on no information at all, says the former head of Statistics Canada.
Munir Sheikh, who quit his job as the chief statistician of StatCan in 2010, said Friday that the current National Household Survey (NHS) will lead to bad planning — on everything from where to put more bus shelters to the types of social programs that best serve Canadians.
Sheikh left StatCan over the fallout from the government's decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census in favour of the voluntary NHS.
"When you have bad information, the chances are you will develop policies that are inappropriate," he told a conference on Canadian access to information laws held by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
Sheikh, now an executive fellow at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, lambasted the quality of information produced by the NHS, saying it paints an incorrect picture of Canadian society.
He added that no other country in the world collects part of its national census data on a voluntary basis.
He called for the mandatory long-form census to be reinstated, otherwise the quality of the information collected by the NHS will continue to deteriorate until it’s "a piece of garbage.”
"If we don't have another [long-form] census by 2016, I'm not quite sure of the value of any Statistics Canada data," he said, adding that a decision must be made by June ahead of the next election.
Many experts who rely on StatCan data have bemoaned the current state of information collection, saying the NHS cannot be trusted.
However, the current StatCan chief, Wayne Smith, has defended the quality of the NHS, saying the data is better than he expected
Sheikh pointed out that when he was at StatCan, they wouldn’t publish data if the level of response was below 75 per cent. The 2011 NHS had response rate was below 75 per cent in several parts of the country, but the government considered the data reliable because the threshold was increased to 50 per cent.
His critique came on the same day Canada's latest jobs report was released, showing the economy lost some 19,000 jobs last month. Many experts have called the reliability of such data into question following a series of major revisions. It also came to light that the government partially relies on Kijiji job search information for its analysis on the state of the job market.
Speaking to the audience, Sheikh clarified his reasoning for stepping down as chief statistician in 2010. He said he did not quit simply because the census was axed but because then-Industry Minister Tony Clement lied and said Sheikh supported the NHS. In reality, Sheikh said, he had advised against it, saying the quality of data would suffer too greatly.
After hearing Clement repeatedly tell reporters that the NHS had Sheikh's support, the statistician said he decided "enough is enough" and that he could no longer work with the Conservative government.
"If I stayed I would be known in this country as incompetent or worse," he said.
"And I couldn't live with that."