Food for thought: important links on StatCan and longitudinal surveys in Canada

This week, Statistics Canada publicly announced the cancellation of the longitudinal portion of the Survey of Labour Income Dynamics (SLID).  If you look at this issue of The Daily, in the very last paragraph under the Note To Readers, you’ll find text that reads:

This is the last release of longitudinal data from the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics. Effective with next year’s release of 2011 data, only cross-sectional estimates will be available. [source] [PDF]

There has been a flurry of comments in various corners of the Internet about this cancellation. Some people see this as an outright cost-cutting measure, while others consider it in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, e.g., where should StatCan put its limited resources, staff, and funds? I have my opinions – it’s not good a idea to let this whither on the vine – but I’ll leave it up to you to decide how to to consider this action.

I will, however, draw your attention to two posts by Canadian academics who know a thing or two about socio-economic data and the mechanics of longitudinal surveys:

Miles Corak writes a nice eulogy for the SLID, but his main point lies in the constraints that StatCan‘s longitudinal surveys face. long-term funding of such surveys are not always clear since they are administered by a creature of government:

At Statistics Canada funding is annual, subject to the trade-offs in managing a whole portfolio of statistical products. It is also dependent upon financial support and direction from particular government departments whose interests and priorities ebb and flow, and are tied to broader government objectives.

. . .

In a recent interview the current Chief Statistician of Australia, Brian Pink, made a revealing and important comment: “Neither the Treasurer nor Prime Minister can tell me how to go about my business. They can tell me what information to collect, but they can’t tell me how to do it, when to do it or how often to do it.”

But it is telling that the Australian longitudinal labour market survey—The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey—which was started in 2001 and has guaranteed funding for 12 years, is not being run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics but rather by an institute at the University of Melbourne.

The current Chief Statistician of Canada is in a more challenging position. He also has the responsibility to manage surveys that form no part of Mr. Pink’s mandate, surveys whose value is in the long-term, much longer than a fiscal year, and even longer than an electoral cycle.

As Canadians embark on another experiment in longitudinal survey taking they should have confidence that Statistics Canada will design and manage the technical details in an efficient, effective, and indeed innovative way; but past experience, both here and abroad, may also make them wonder if the managerial structure and financial responsibility is designed to match the long-term horizon these data require. [source]

Corak, I think, is asking us to consider if it’s time for other agencies to administer longitudinal surveys in Canada (at the very least, he’s making the observation that things are done differently in other countries).  Blayne Haggart puts it in very plain terms:

[Corak] argues that the real problem may be that, as a government agency with a one-year budget horizon subject to political whims, Statistics Canada isn’t the best placed agency to handle projects with time horizons that stretch beyond electoral cycles into decades. This means that even throwing the bums out wouldn’t solve the underlying problem. New boss, meet old boss and all that. [source]

As for me, it’s too early to decide. I’m not sure what yet to think.  I definitely have dogs in this race, but I’m not yet in a position to agree or disagree worth Corak and Haggart. My preference is to have well-funded government statistical agencies who collect and disseminate socio-economic data, and to have well-funded government knowledge centres (e.g., LAC) that can improve the preservation of and access to government information. But on the question of longitudinal studies, perhaps Corak and Haggart’s opinions have enough merit for us to have a discussion on whether Canadian not-for-profits and university research centres should make a big step forward and take a decisive lead in the future.