Friday, July 02, 2010

More on the Censlessness

Back here I echoed Big City Lib in highlighting the plans for virtually eliminating the "long form" the 2011 Census. And here Dave pointed out the borrowed rationale for doing so, paraphrased by a spokesboffin for Industry Minister Tony Clement:
"This change was made to reasonably limit what many Canadians felt was an intrusion of their personal privacy," said Erik Waddell, a spokesman for Industry Minister Tony Clement (Statistics Canada falls under the purview of Industry Canada).
I actually partially agree with this statement. The long form is a very intrusive survey. It contains questions that many may find uncomfortable to answer. Answering questions regarding marital status, ethnic or national origin or a number of other personal details, especially if you're being personally enumerated by a stranger, might righteously piss you off. Immigrants and long-term residents from places with brutal and corrupt governments might be very fearful of completing forms where the state is compelling them to provide that sort of detailed information about their lives. Further, the fact that that you and I are legally obligated to participate in the Census is undoubtably unnerving to some in a country where people are not really compelled to do much of anything without their consent.

A university researcher proposing to ask similar questions of the public would be subject to a more rigorous review by their research ethics board as some of these questions may well make a respondent uncomfortable and it would certainly have to be voluntary.

So yeah, it's not a pleasant survey about your beer preferences we're dealing with and you can't refuse it.

And I can't say I really fault anyone for refusing to complete it. It IS an invasion of one's privacy by the state. That your identifying information and the staff viewing it are bound in secrecy by the Statistics Act might not matter much if you feel your privacy is being invaded.

However, we're all members of the national community and we elect governments to responsibly govern. And they need information to do so, as I and others have pointed out. The absence of this information hobbles their, and your, capacity to understand what is happening in the country and it's not hard to see the sort of harm that could lead to in terms of policy. Example: You a member of a community benefitting from a specific federal or municipal government program funding indexed to a related Census-sourced indicator. If there is no information available from that Census indicator, it becomes very difficult to accurately calculate a sufficient funding amount and the risk of waste increases. Government needs to get that information from somewhere.

People who want to make the Census long form optional must then accept risks of certain consequences. Several come to mind.

First, there are the resulting poorly administered government programming, incomplete public, private and academic research, and all the problems that sort of thing entails for society and economy.

Second, there's the risk that the government will, upon noticing their data gap, attempt to gather that information through less overt means, such as data mining exercises through other agencies and departments. This might circumvent the Statistics Act and its secrecy and privacy guarantees resulting in some sort of skulduggery in the way of secret files... Then you're really getting into some ethically tricksy ground.

Third, the burden of collecting the missing data will end up with provincial governments. They need that data as much as anyone, and their statistics bureaus might find themselves tasked with collecting it. I think its a fair question as to whether they would be bound by the same secrecy law as the Statistics Act. And on a national scale, a mix and match of provincial and even municipal mini-censuses eliminates the coherence and efficiency both in form and rigour of the national survey.

Whichever way you slice it, you end up with a bloody great mess. Sometimes you actually have to participate in society for it to work.

Way to go Tony, at least a few nutters are happy!

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