Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On the physical constraints to the independence of Statistics Canada

Before this weekend, the biggest news relating to Statistics Canada had to do with the very high response rate to the 2016 census just concluded, 98.4% of those surveyed nation-wide responding. The news Friday that chief statistician Wayne Smith had resigned in protest caught many people off guard.

Canada's chief statistician has resigned in protest over what he says is the federal governments' failure to protect Statistics Canada's independence.

Wayne Smith says the government's decision to create Shared Services Canada and centralize all information technology services across government has compromised Statistics Canada's ability to fulfil its mandate.

"I have made the best effort I can to have this situation remediated, but to no effect," Smith said in a note to the National Statistical Council, which advises him. "I cannot lend my support to government initiatives that will purport to protect the independence of Statistics Canada when, in fact, that independence has never been more compromised,"

"I do not wish to preside over the decline of what is still, but cannot remain in these circumstances, a world-leading statistical office."

[. . .]

Shared Services was created by the previous government to centralize and standardize information technology across the federal government in a bid to save money. It has struggled to meet expectations with several agencies, including the RCMP and the Canadian Forces, which have complained of data centre crashes, red tape, bad customer service and unpaid bills.

Smith said he had issued a warning that ever since Statistics Canada began relying on Shared Services for its IT, the research department had begun losing control of the information it collects from Canadians through operations such as the long-form census.

In the note, Smith argued that Shared Services holds "an effective veto over many of Statistics Canada's decisions concerning the collection, processing, storage, analysis and dissemination of official statistics through denial or constructive denial of essential services."

"Statistics Canada is increasingly hobbled in the delivery of its programs through disruptive, ineffective, slow and unaffordable supply of physical informatics services by Shared Services Canada," he added.

(Smith's full statement is available here.)

I said "many people" above because reports about the failures of Shared Services have appeared periodically in the past year. On the 30th of January, for instance, the Ottawa Citizen published James Bagnall's article "Circuit overload: Why Shared Services Canada is struggling" looking at the problems of the service.

Shared Services is responsible for collapsing 63 federal email programs into a single system, consolidating nearly 500 data centres into seven and streamlining the government’s telecommunications. By 2020, if all goes well, the government will have invested more than $1 billion to modernize a ramshackle electronic infrastructure that is currently vulnerable to hackers and costly to run.

If it works, taxpayers can expect to save at least $60 million annually to run federal websites and online services. But on Shared Services’ present course, it may take years more than planned to complete this multi-faceted project – at a cost that can only be guessed at now.

It’s not going smoothly. Government workers are no longer surprised to receive notices that begin with the telltale line: “We have been advised by Shared Services Canada …” What usually follows is an explanation of which systems aren’t working at that particular time, with an estimate of when they’ll be restored.

Sometimes it’s an email issue. Earlier this week, for instance, employees at one of the smaller departments were informed that their emails were getting through to the public but not to government colleagues.

Other times, data centres are to blame. The failure of a power distribution unit two months ago at the government’s data centre along Aviation Parkway triggered an emergency shutdown at multiple government websites for days.

Briefly put, technological issues have combined with a far too broad a mandate to create a technological impasse. This July, CBC carried the relevant federal minister's CBC promises to make Shared Services work, perhaps ironically at the same time that it also reported on Statistics Canada's complaints that Shared Services was not meeting its needs for the 2016 census. After his resignation, Smith was interviewed by the CBC at length about the problems Statistics Canada encountered.

The Liberal government has inherited a Conservative technological initiative in government that is not working well at all in Shared Services, much as it has with the Phoenix payroll service for federal government employees. As with Phoenix, it has not made obvious signs of moving beyond this. The only conclusion to be drawn from this is the obvious: The institutional constraints to the independence of Statistics Canada that I have written about here in the past are not the only sorts of constraints. There are material constraints, too. As yet, there are no signs that these latter will be removed.

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