IASSIST day one – an administrative census?

The IASSIST conference has started – this is the largest annual gathering of data librarians and associated geeks from around the world. The opening plenary was given by Ian McKinnon, chair of the Canadian National Statistics Council, and it was on our favourite topic.

He spoke cautiously. One of his main points was that this government does not back down. His focus early in the campaign against the census was on finding a way for the decision to be reversed that would allow the government to save face – a compromise of some sort. It is too late for that, which means that it is too late to expect a return to the former census status quo under this government.

My own thought is that possibly it was too late from quite early on. Under an adversarial political system, the focus of the opposition parties is on causing the government to lose face, as much, as eary and as as often as possible.

So if there won’t be a return to the status quo under this government, can anything be done?

What Mckinnon suggested was that we see the census change as an opportunity. Statistics Canada has always been reluctant to experiment with changes to the methodology of the census because that would lead to a loss of comparability. But now we have an enforced discontinuity. So why not look at alternatives – take a real look at how best to collect data that meets our national needs for planning and research?

The alternative that McKinnon mentioned is to use administrative data. This is the approach used by some European countries (the Dutch model was talked about in a later session yesterday afternoon). This approach requires a national sampling frame with a unique identifier for each person in Canada to which administrative data could be linked – tax, immigration, employment, etc. Of course, I’m not sure a government with a libertarian bent would really go for such a national tracking system, a point McKinnon alluded to as well. An audience member mentioned the American Community Survey model – a rolling, large sample mandatory survey.

McKinnon ended by emphasizing that the government doesn’t care what statisticians, librarians and other academics think, and neither, in general, does the general public. So our role should be to encourage end users to speak up: health planners, business owners, transportation engineers and others.

Many such groups have already spoken up. So my questions are: can we get them to do more? And can we get anyone to hear?

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