Census 2011 looms as a failure

I couldn’t convince my own mother to do the long form census from Statistics Canada. Oh sure, she, the mother of a researcher, meant well but it is v-e-r-y long. At least, I console myself,  she recycled the form, meeting that civic participation bar.

A colleague explained that he had tried to complete the on-line the National Household Survey (the long form census) more than three times but he finally gave the task to another household member because each question required another hunt through the family files: housing costs, education levels, etc. Why couldn’t they make it easier, he asked?

This is a small sample, to be sure, but, like doing our taxes, filling out long government forms is no fun. So the response rate to the survey has got to be poor or very uneven.

Jennifer Ditchburn from Canadian Press quoted, “a lot of people shut down the conversation quickly when they find out it’s not mandatory.” She also reported Statistics Canada is not following up on incomplete Household Surveys and is settling for incomplete ones.

What will happen to the quality of the data, then? I recently asked a medical officer of health. He too had heard about the low response rates and despaired how this was what had been predicted during the discussions before parliament when the census revisions emerged. We’ll have to do estimations, he explained, to test how reliable the data is and then we will muddle through.

And that epitomizes the very issue with the census – a census is, by definition, a count of every household (or in the case of the long-form census, one in five random households). This census is no longer a census, but simply a sample of the Canadian population.

While the progress of the data collection is not public, other hints of the (non-)returns tell a worsening story.

The short-form census, the one that basically asked us to re-type what was on the mail label and add family language, must have a poor response rate too.

At the community agency where I work, clients were confused by government messaging. Hadn’t the whole debate about the census concluded that it was voluntary? Staff have had to explain that the short-form census is still required, while the long-form one, no longer called the census, is not.

Confused? I’ll say. So are others, as documented in the Hamilton Spectator and the Halifax Chronicle Herald this week (see the comments section for further evidence even).

I feel particularly mournful about this because, as governments move towards integrated policy responses, such as poverty-reduction strategies, and as our computational capacities increase, the census has become integral to good evidence-based decision-making. So just as the need and our capacity to explore better policy-making are emerging, our ability to do so has been undercut.

What a crying shame.

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