THE NATIONAL STATISTICS COUNCIL OF CANADA
February 29, 2000
Statistics Canada is a highly centralized national statistical agency, operating under a strong Statistics Act. The Act, among its other features, provides unlimited subject matter scope for the Agency while also spelling out twenty specific areas in which it must be active - such as population, agriculture, health and welfare, education, labour and employment, prices and the cost of living, manufacturing, commerce with other countries, etc. The agency is assigned a lead role "to promote and develop integrated social and economic statistics pertaining to the whole of Canada and to each of the provinces thereof and to coordinate plans for the integration of such statistics". The agency operates under a Minister. The Chief Statistician, "under the direction of the Minister, supervise(s) generally the administration of this Act and control(s) the operations and staff of Statistics Canada". The Act assigns the legal mandate for the preservation of statistical confidentiality to the Chief Statistician, not to the Minister.
In addition to the legal provisions, a strong tradition has evolved: Statistics Canada is treated at arm's length by the Minister and the government. Successive governments confirmed and reconfirmed - from the Prime Minister's office - that statistical information is made available by Statistics Canada to all members of the public at the same time; however, a pre-release of less than 24 hours is made of a handful of key series to designated senior officials in the departments for purposes such as the orderly management of money markets. Furthermore, while the government establishes the total budget for Statistics Canada, statistical priorities within the budget are set by the Chief Statistician.
So, somewhat in analogy to the Governor of the Bank of Canada, while the Chief Statistician reports to Parliament through a minister, the agency's professional independence is unquestioned.
Establishment of the National Statistics Council
In the early 1980's the agency embarked on a conscious program of strengthening its active consultative mechanisms with key clients and broadly based representatives of the national interest. Among the major new initiatives were the establishment of a series of bilateral senior committees with key federal departments - both clients and sources of data derived from administrative records (this supplemented already existing strong consultative mechanisms with the provinces); and some10-15 professional advisory committees were set up. The latter involved experts (typically from outside government) in such areas as demography, labour, national accounting, price measurement, service industries, health, etc.
In 1985, the government established, at the apex of the agency's consultative mechanisms, the National Statistics Council. Its formal mandate is very brief: it is to "advise the Chief Statistician in setting priorities and rationalizing Statistics Canada programs". In line with other aspects of Canadian policy in relation to statistical activities, a careful balance was attempted between policy relevance and professional independence: members of the Council are appointed by the Minister, but their duty is to advise the Chief Statistician.
Appointment process and membership
Members of the Council are appointed by the Minister for a period of three years but subject to renewal. There are about 40 members. While there are no rules for representation, the following practice has generally been adhered to:
(a) All members serve in their individual capacities -- there are no formal representational appointments;
(b) Most members are interested and prestigious analysts of some aspect of Canadian life, but few are professional statisticians;
(c) At least one member from each of Statistics Canada's professional advisory committees serves on the Council; also from the Federal-Provincial Consultative Council on Statistical Policy. This ensures the availability of a wide range of subject matter knowledge within the Council, as well as linkage with the agency's other advisory bodies;
(d) A senior member from the Statistical Society of Canada usually serves;
(e) At least one senior journalist on social or economic affairs is a member;
(f) Membership is selected in such a fashion as to ensure appropriate knowledge of the different provinces and territories of Canada;
(g) No federal official is a member of the Council (except as in (h) and (i) below). This enhances the de facto independence of Council to "speak up" should it be necessary;
(h) The Chief Statistician is an ex officio member;
(i) A senior Assistant Chief Statistician serves as secretary.
A large proportion of the initial members, including the Chairman, was appointed by the Minister from a list of persons recommended by the Chief Statistician. More recently, appointments have been proposed to the Minister by the Chairman of the Council, following discussions with the Chief Statistician.
As a result of these measures, the Council is a very knowledgeable, influential and broadly representative group. Indeed, its influence derives from the individual prestige of its members.
Agenda and Modus Operandi
The Council meets about twice a year, each time for a day and a half. Regular agenda items are Statements by Members in which Council members may raise questions or concerns either for immediate response or subsequent discussion, and an in-depth report by the Chief Statistician on recent developments at Statistics Canada (including new substantive initiatives, forward planning, budgetary expectations). Other agenda items usually deal with major statistical or policy issues - such as: 2001 Census content, Environment statistics, Longitudinal data, Issues in social statistics, Dissemination practices, Pricing policy, Privacy and record linkage, Contingency planning in the face of expected budget cuts, the Provincial component of the national statistical system, Significant statistical information gaps, etc.
Agenda items are selected from items raised by members and issues identified by Statistics Canada in conjunction with the Chairman. From time to time a subgroup of the Council is formed to deal with particular issues (e.g. access to historical censuses) between Council Meetings.
The Council generally provides feedback to the Chief Statistician through a discussion among its members. Consensus is usually (though not always) achieved. Resolutions and formal recommendations are rare, although the Chairman has been authorized by Council on a few occasions to write to the responsible Minister - and on one occasion to key Deputy Ministers. Topics included: securing funding for testing the 1991 Census, the impact of potential additional budget reductions on the outputs of the agency (and hence on its clients), non-budgetary administrative hindrances to the agency's cost recovered service functions. In general, these rare interventions were thoughtfully received and, undoubtedly combined with other considerations, were favourably dealt with.
While strictly speaking these letters went beyond the Council's formal mandate to advise the Chief Statistician, members of the Council felt an obligation to act as guardians of the public good in respect of statistical information. By so doing and through the power of precedent, they extended their formal function in a subtle but important way.
There can be no doubt that members of the Council take their function seriously. The Chief Statistician regards their advice as being of very substantial benefit. In addition, through the prestige of its members and through precedent, Council has evolved into an additional and - should the need arise undoubtedly very influential - bulwark in the defence of the objectivity, integrity, and long-term soundness of Canada's national statistical system.