To truly modernize social programs, it will take big data and analytics

I may be biased given some of the obstacles I faced when working on “citizen-centred service” in the early days of Service Canada, where even conceptual work regarding integrating disparate programs and services from a pathfinder perspective faced resistance.

The complexity and coordination required, the organizational and even program stovepipes, and the sheer difficulty in developing and implementing such a change agenda make me a sceptic. After all, the government wasn’t even able to integrate pay services for its own employees with Phoenix, and has had less visible problems and challenges with Shared Services Canada.

But of course, better use of big data, and better capacity to analyse the data, offer considerable potential to assess the effectiveness of current programs, identify gaps and improve outcomes:

Finding better ways of wiring for e-government is important and necessary. Nobody would disagree with the need for better computing, electronic communications and information management.

However, digital improvements will bring about only modest gains if they are applied to programs that, at core, are based on pre-computer technologies, as is the case with most of today’s social and health programs. Transformative changes in program objectives and designs based on big data and micro-analytic tools must be brought into the picture. We need to create a trove of “what works” data that will lead to individually tailored social programming.

Most of today’s social programs were designed decades ago and, reflecting the limits of the technology of the day, provide eligible individuals with standard services, products or income supports that are designed to address specific problems.

For example, an unemployed person might be assigned to a training course with a fixed duration and curriculum. A low-income senior will be provided with a top-up pension in an amount that is predetermined based on the individual’s annual income in the previous year. Someone diagnosed with a particular disease will receive a prescription for specific drugs. These benefits are provided by a variety of independent programs funded by different orders of government — and are often delivered by staff in the social work, education or health disciplines. It is difficult to coordinate or even communicate across these programs, which is why they are often referred to as program silos. Individuals who receive benefits are seen as recipients, clients, patients or students, not as citizens or partners.

It’s a reasonably efficient system that works reasonably well for most people most of the time. On balance, the results are positive, near the average of other OECD countries.

However, the system is seriously showing its age.

The underlying weakness shows up most starkly in the way the system deals with the most vulnerable. People who are most in need of health and social services or income support often face multiple obstacles in life. They might lack several types of skills, have inadequate housing and poor jobs, have differing degrees of family support and financial assets, and face a variety of health, disability and addiction issues. People with multiple needs can face an almost impenetrable array of separate programs, each with different terms and conditions and offering solutions that are partial at best. Even with the help of experts and case managers, it is often impossible to create sensible combined packages of benefits to meet individual needs.

For decades, service providers and groups representing the vulnerable have pointed out the problem of trying to shoehorn people into this complex system of fractured supports and benefits.

And for many years, policy documents relating to education, health and social policy have called for a more holistic approach, with benefits directly tailored to the diverse needs of individuals. These have been referred to as student-centred, citizen-centric and, more recently, individually driven approaches. In health, related aspirations are often referred to as precision medicine or personalized medicine, where medical treatments, practices or products are tailored to the individual patient.

However, the called-for changes have not occurred. Experiments, demonstrations and other initiatives that have attempted to cut across the boundaries of the program silos have proven difficult to sustain and have typically had little impact on the design of mainstream programming.

There are good reasons for the lack of success in moving outside traditional silos:

  • Traditional programming makes it relatively easy to provide ongoing funding, to ensure ministerial accountability and to provide the high professional standards that can ensure, for example, the quality of health and educational interventions.
  • No organization has a mandate to develop interventions that cross these traditional program boundaries.
  • The empirical data needed to assess the effectiveness of tailor-made, holistic interventions are underdeveloped and are certainly not yet strong enough to create the needed accountability arrangements. Strong accountability regimes — the monitoring and evaluation activities that ensure that money is spent effectively, transparently and in line with intended objectives — are essential if reform is to be sustained.

But the solution is on the near horizon: big data and predictive analytics. They offer the opportunity for all citizens to become real partners in the design and implementation of the social and health programs that affect their lives. They can provide transformative gains, particularly for people who are most vulnerable.

This technology is in use in other applications and can be applied to social policy. I discussed it in an IRPP essay I wrote in 2015, The Enabling Society. At its core, individuals would have access to information at the very time they need to make big social and health decisions, to make well-informed choices about which combination of training, social services, housing, income supports and health interventions is likely to work best for them. This information would be calculated from large data sets that record the experience of people who have been in similar circumstances and had similar aspirations in the past. This technology produces information that allows all dimensions of the system to work in harmony:

  • The “what works” information would also be available to case workers, teachers, health professionals and other front-line staff so they can become partners in helping individuals put together flexible packages of interventions that are most likely to meet an individual’s particular needs and aspirations, including benefits provided by programs originating in different disciplines and orders of government.
  • The same information would provide the designers and administrators of the many independent traditional programs with the tools to make improvements steadily and automatically over time based on feedback loops that routinely describe which features of the program are working best and for whom — and at what cost.
  • The same information would also support rigorous accountability regimes both for existing program silos and for the flexible arrangements that provide individually tailored packages of interventions.

Such a system would result in huge gains on multiple fronts: in individual and social well-being, in effectiveness, in reduced cost, in the openness and accountability of public programs and in the ability of different orders of government to work together more harmoniously and in a way that treats citizens as main partners in shaping and delivering social programs.

A radically different approach along these lines, one that so dramatically changes the relationship between government and citizen, obviously cannot be attained overnight.

We should start small, in areas where mechanisms already exist to allow cooperation across jurisdictional and program borders and where the needed “what works” information is already well developed. There are a number of possible starting points.

For example, Employment and Social Development Canada could work with one or more provinces in introducing “what works” information into the daily operation of training and other employment programs on an experimental or demonstration basis under the authority of existing labour market agreements, which provide federal funding to support provincial and territorial employability initiatives. These agreements already allow considerable flexibility in the funding and development of innovative employment programs. As well, the needed “what works” data have already been developed and are already routinely used in the evaluation of these projects.

Once their practicality and effectiveness have been clearly demonstrated, these small initiatives could extend naturally and gradually to other areas and would, eventually, become the normal way we do business.

At the same time, the government of Canada should undertake a large-scale exercise to develop big data from administrative sources, such as anonymized information from tax files, employment insurance records and provincial training and social assistance files. It should also develop the associated analytic tools that will allow us to use these rich data to better understand individual behaviour and the kinds of social interventions that are likely to work best at the level of particular individuals.

Such fundamental but gradual changes in the purpose and design of programs need to go hand in hand with the deep reforms in digital processes that have been discussed in this Policy Options series, including a stronger capacity throughout all parts of government in the use of computers, electronic communications and information management. Process reforms could, in some cases, increase efficiency and improve service delivery and customer satisfaction. They could also provide somewhat better information about what programs and benefits are available and allow greater access to administrative data that have been collected. However, if such reforms are made in isolation, divorced from deep “what works” changes in program goals and designs, they risk creating expectations for change that cannot be met.

Those in the e-government community are not directly responsible for changing basic social policy directions or reforming the structure of social programs, but they can nevertheless play a pivotal role in the development and use of big data and predictive analytics. This might at minimum involve active support for reforms along the lines laid out in a paper by the Experts Panel on Income Security of the Council on Aging of Ottawa that describes the kind of micro-level data and microanalytic tools that are needed. Such support, along with process reform, could go a long way in finally enabling the real transition to the digital world.

Source: To truly modernize social programs, it will take big data and analytics

Chris Selley: Here’s why Justin Trudeau’s identity-politics troubles were inevitable

Identity politics is practiced by all political parties, the variation lies more with respect to which identities they are trying to court compared to others.

That being said, Selley notes correctly some of the risks.

And it is amazing the extent to which the PM appears to have destroyed whatever remained of his brand over the past week: “sunny ways,” transparent government, gender equality and Indigenous reconciliation:

One assumes Jody Wilson-Raybould would prefer still to be Canada’s Minister of Justice. But there are certainly worse ways to go out. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau squirms before the cameras, mooting unsatisfying explanation after unsatisfying explanation as to just what transpired between his office and Wilson-Raybould in the matter of the SNC Lavalin prosecution, she’s practically soaked to the bone with praise.

There are serious questions as to how Wilson-Raybould could have stayed on in cabinet, or indeed not resigned as soon as the bad thing happened — whatever it was, assuming it happened. But when she finally threw in the towel on Tuesday, even NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh lauded her record: “Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous woman AG of Canada, fulfilled her duties with courage and conviction,” he tweeted. “She spoke truth to power and in return she was fired by PM Trudeau.”

One notes Singh praised her record as Attorney-General, not as Justice Minister. Had Wilson-Raybould been shuffled to another relatively high-profile portfolio instead of being kicked down the stairs, the dominant narrative might have concerned what a terribly disappointing Justice Minister she was: Among many other complaints are the insane, likely unconstitutional impaired driving law and inaction on mandatory minimum sentences and victim surcharges, each of which is likely to disproportionately affect Indigenous and other visible minority Canadians; and of course, the continued wildly disproportionate number of Indigenous defendants and prisoners.

Indeed, Wilson-Raybould had plenty of Indigenous critics when she was in office. Now the dominant narrative is that her firing represents a major repudiation of Trudeau’s reconciliation agenda. It’s more than passing strange, but that’s the politics we have right now: Anywhere centre or left of centre, one’s identity and background count massively in or against your favour. That being the case, the Liberals’ current travails seem almost inevitable.

Trudeau’s first cabinet featured some very impressive resumes from a wide variety of people — but it was “because it’s 2015” that knocked half of Canada down in a swoon. From Day One, there were obvious questions: Why no black cabinet ministers? Why so many Sikhs? Why privilege one kind of proportional representation above another? Liberals waved such complaints away like mosquitoes: Can’t you people just enjoy a landmark achievement from a government that means well?

Well, no. Love identity politics or hate it, that’s not how it works. Eventually it was bound to fall apart. We’re seeing it right now.

At his Tuesday press conference, Trudeau repeatedly referred to Wilson-Raybould as “Jody” and Harjit Sajjan, who takes over from her at Veterans Affairs, as “Minsiter Sajjan.” To some, this smacked at worst deliberate sexism, at best of accidental sexism. To many others, this parsing will seem like a petty reach. (He couldn’t very well call her “Minister Wilson-Raybould,” could he?) But Trudeau can hardly complain. His party banged on forever about how disrespectful it was for the Conservatives to call him Justin.

When an MP or minister (or ex-MP or ex-minister) causes a political leader trouble, what does he do? Same thing an NHL GM does to justify a lousy trade: He has a friendly reporter explain what a nuisance that person was in the locker room. So we have heard various anonymous reports about Wilson-Raybould’s pugnacious, difficult and self-centred performance in cabinet. It’s standard operating procedure — but it’s also anonymously slagging off an Indigenous woman. That doesn’t fly in 2019.

At this point, the Wilson-Raybould demotion looks like a spectacular unforced error. But it would have taken a very, very different kind of politician to have avoided forever the trouble in which Trudeau now finds himself. Trudeau is not a very different kind of politician, and his staffers are not very different kinds of staffers. Several, including principal secretary Gerald Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford, cut their teeth in the office of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty — another supposed breath of fresh air that went rapidly stale and eventually left everyone at Queen’s Park gagging in a green haze of egg fart. McGuinty’s former deputy chief of staff just got out of jail.

The Trudeau gang does seem to truly believe in their own inherent virtue — that when they call up The Canadian Press to slag off a former cabmin, it’s literally not the same thing as when a Conservative staffer does it. They still seem utterly transfixed by the power of symbolism over action. But that doesn’t help any real people who need real help. Setting aside their words and their symbolic gestures, their actions have been little but conventional.

It’s a great disappointment to many — perhaps not least some of Trudeau’s own cabinet ministers. Several have expressed support and praise for Wilson-Raybould’s works since her resignation. Treasury Board President Jane Philpott even posted a photo of the two together.

It would be easy to read too much into that. But it raises the intriguing prospect that some of Trudeau’s MPs might be truer believers in his agenda than he is. These people were promised “government by cabinet,” after all. If they decide to insist on it, even more interesting days may lie ahead.

Source: Chris Selley: Here’s why Justin Trudeau’s identity-politics troubles were inevitable

Statistics Canada is better than you might think. But it can still do better: Munir Sheikh

Sheikh comments on the Globe’s data gap series and offers some practical suggestions of his own:

Canada has huge gaps in our data. That’s the big takeaway from The Globe and Mail’s notable series examining the state of Canadian data, which tells us that we lag behind some other countries, particularly the United States; that these gaps exist because of constrained funding and Statistics Canada’s bureaucratic, secretive mindset; and that these gaps are having a negative effect on our decision-making.

Yes, Canada has problems. But then, who doesn’t?

Citizens and governments around the world make millions of daily decisions on a vast array of issues, and each of these can potentially benefit from more data. The existence of gaps, therefore, is a virtual certainty anywhere in the world. The much-lauded U.S., for instance, does not produce detailed monthly GDP data, while Canada does, and many experts and statisticians feel that Canada’s important GDP data are of better quality than those that the U.S. does produce and require fewer revisions. Canada is also one of just a handful of countries that produced financial flow accounts, which allows policy-makers to better understand the nature and economic impacts of the 2008 financial market crash.

Canada also does an extraordinary job in producing high-quality census data at a much lower cost compared with many countries, thanks to innovations like sampling in census and being among the first to use the internet to gather citizens’ responses. Canada can also boast of higher survey-response rates in many areas than the United States. And all this despite having roughly a tenth of the resources available to the U.S. federal statistical system.

That certainly doesn’t mean all is good and well here. We face serious challenges when it comes to acquiring the highest quality and most relevant data. The quality of data deteriorates automatically as the country evolves amid forces like the ongoing tech revolution (e.g. using cell phones instead of land lines) and efforts to gather survey responses suffer. Data also becomes less relevant over time as the country’s needs begin to differ from the available information. For instance, we continue to produce a disproportionately large quantity of data on manufacturing than on the services industry, even though services now represents two-thirds of the economy. And Canada’s long-form census was, for a time, replaced by a voluntary survey that produced all the information the longer census would have accumulated but with lower quality – and a higher cost, to boot.

In my view, this has produced data gaps in census information, but bad data may be more dangerous than no data at all, since giving credence to bad information can lead to bad policy. The debate around data would be most productive if it’s framed around both quantity as well as quality, which would enable policy-makers and Canadians to deal with the most pressing national issues in an informed way. On this count, Statistics Canada has struggled, as do many others.

There are three things that can be done to proactively deal with data deterioration.

  • First, the government can increase funding for Statistics Canada to close the most important gaps that exist now, including information that measures the digital economy.
  • Secondly, Statistics Canada should, over time, reallocate resources from less-needed data to those that are more important. Despite its efforts, the agency has not been able to establish an effective resource-reallocation mechanism, because it has had to bend many times to the users of existing data. Users of any data become vocally unhappy if theirs stops being collected.
  • Lastly, Statistics Canada should tap new data sources and new ways of collecting information that can replace or augment existing methods.

Indeed, on that last front, Statistics Canada’s paranoia around confidentiality and privacy makes its brass gun-shy in acquiring or sharing new data with researchers. I witnessed it firsthand. Despite best efforts during my tenure as chief statistician, confidentiality concerns made it a slog to make more business-sector microdata available. But while Statistics Canada’s record of privacy-preservation and confidentiality is excellent – better than many of the most sensitive institutions in the U.S. (we have not endured crises like Wikileaks or the Pentagon Papers) – those issues have thwarted attempts to maintain data quality. Through politicians’ invocation of the bogeyman of privacy to try to kill the long-form census and a Global News report that exposed its requests for Canadians’ detailed financial-transaction data, Statistics Canada ironically finds itself in a lose-lose situation – criticized for its poor dissemination of data because it is so concerned about privacy, and denied access to new sources of data because privacy concerns have bred mistrust.

But the institution itself might just provide the way forward. Recent amendments to the Statistics Act established a Canadian Statistics Advisory Council to support the minister and the chief statistician, and this council should be tasked with convincing data users that certain resources should be allocated better. By playing an oversight role on privacy and confidentiality issues, too, the council can earn the trust of Canadians who, knowing that their data are safe and secure, might be more giving with their information for the national good.

There are certainly ways to improve Statistics Canada. But if collecting data is all about getting the whole picture, we can’t lose sight of what we’re already doing well.

Source: www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-statistics-canada-is-better-than-you-might-think-but-it-can-still-do/

In the dark: The cost of Canada’s data deficit

This incredibly valuable investigative reporting. I have excerpted a few of the sections I found most interesting but the entire article is worth a good read, and I look forward to future segments in this series.

I use StatsCan and other data frequently and generally find I can find what I need, or an alternate way to identity issues and trends. So I do have some sympathy for StatsCan Head Anora’s comments that sometimes researchers don’t try hard enough (e.g., see my critique of Karen Robson: Why won’t Canada collect data on race and student success?, weak to non-existent municipal diversity statistics can be found in census occupation group data).

But the example of birth statistics is where I cam up short. The vital statistics agencies do not capture visible minority data or accurate residency data, and do not verify identity documents of the parents. All of which mean, in addition to the all important health-related differences, that births to non-residents are drastically undercounted by StatsCan (in the end, I found better if imperfect numbers from hospital financial statistics: Hospital stats show birth tourism rising in major cities).

I look forward to their analysis of the data available on the government’s open data website as I did an analysis a few years back on the IRCC datasets, the most comprehensive ones available, but where timeliness is becoming an issue (IRCC Datasets: What they say about government priorities):

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And yet, in fields ranging from public health to energy economics to the labour force to the status of children with disabilities, there’s a lot that Canada simply doesn’t know about itself.

Consider that we don’t have a clear national picture of the vaccination rate in particular towns and cities. We don’t know the Canadian marriage or divorce rate. We don’t know how much drug makers pay the Canadian doctors who are charged with prescribing their products. We don’t have detailed data on the level of lead in Canadian children’s blood. We don’t know the rate at which Canadian workers get injured. We don’t know the number of people who are evicted from their homes. We don’t even know how far Canadians drive – a seeming bit of trivia that can tell us about an economy’s animal spirits, as well as the bite that green policies are having.

Our ignorance is decades in the making, with causes that cut to the heart of Canada’s identity as a country: provincial responsibility for health and education that keeps important information stuck in silos and provides little incentive for provinces to keep easily comparable numbers about themselves; a zeal for protecting personal privacy on the part of our statistical authorities that shades into paranoia; a level of complacency about the scale of our problems that keeps us from demanding transparency and action from government; and a squeamishness about race and class that prevents us from finding out all we could about disparities between the privileged and the poor.

But if the problem has deep roots, it has never mattered more. We live in a data-driven age, when the internet and the processing power of computers has made it easier than ever to hoover up statistics about a society, make them public and accessible, and crowdsource better decisions about how to deliver everything from income support to green incentives to job training. Governments around the world have harnessed that power to make themselves smarter, leaner and more effective.

But government data are a different thing. It’s the information that various ministries, agencies and bureaus collect about citizens through administrative sources – such as tax filings and birth records – and questionnaires such as the census and community surveys. And unlike the tech companies that probe our digital lives for profit, governments aren’t in the business of caring what the numbers say about us individually: They’re looking for patterns.

The best way to spot trends is to enlist the public’s help by making your data open. At its best, this produces a charmed cycle: The government collects numbers, makes them anonymous and puts them on a website; a researcher, or even an ordinary citizen, notices something in the numbers (a spike in deaths! or a decline in productivity!); the government hears the alarm and can begin figuring out ways to address the problem.

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In Canada, though, this cycle too often breaks down. Either the government hasn’t collected the relevant numbers or it won’t make them public. Important questions go unanswered. That’s especially dangerous for Canadian patients: Our health-care system is pockmarked with data gaps that leave people unsure of the quality and integrity of the care they’re getting, and leaves us in the dark about whether the system is meeting people’s needs.

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No one asks themselves that question more often than academics. They are patient zero for Canada’s data-gaps epidemic. And the frustration they experience has implications for us all: When scholars work without access to proper data, they are unable to tell us stories about our world and ourselves that can only be unearthed when expert analysis is applied to a thorough rendering of the raw facts.

Lindsay Tedds, a professor of economic policy at the University of Calgary, has been struck recently by the difference, between the United States and Canada, regarding one of the most fundamental subsets of demographic data: birth records.

To begin with, the standard U.S. certificate of live birth collects all kinds of detailed information about the child’s parents – particularly their level of education and their race. “We know that African-American women die in childbirth at an alarming rate. We know that non-white babies are born smaller and earlier,” says Prof. Tedds. “Both of these factors are highly related to [the] poverty of the parents.” In Canada the picture is far less clear. “Imagine,” she says, “if we had similar detailed, population-level data, including for pregnancy and birth outcomes, for Indigenous moms.”

But even if the records were more detailed, she notes, the information would be harder to dig out: “The United States birth data, you just go onto a website and download it.”

In Canada, by contrast, birth data are kept in a series of facilities called Research Data Centres – the bane of many researchers trying to unlock tricky problems in Canadian social science. Statistics Canada opened the first RDC in 2000, with the aim of giving researchers access to so-called confidential microdata – the previously hidden guts of Statscan’s collections, such as census responses, health-survey results and birth records – without compromising anyone’s privacy.

But while they contain a rich trove of data, the fact that it is embedded with potentially identifying details about individual Canadians – not names, which are scrubbed ahead of time, but occupation and gender, for example – means that researchers must jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops before they can get their hands on it. Wendy Watkins, a Carleton University sociologist and former Statscan analyst, calls the centres “little data jails.”

There are 30 RDCs across Canada, almost all on university campuses – although Brandon, Sudbury, Trois-Rivières, Charlottetown and Peterborough, Ont., all university towns, have no such research centres. There are no RDCs at all in Nunavut, Yukon or Prince Edward Island. Because researchers have to visit them in person, that often means travelling hundreds of kilometres.

And that journey only gets them to the jailhouse gates. Then the real hurdles emerge. These can include providing a five-year address history, submitting a research proposal well ahead of time, and being formally sworn in as a government employee for the duration of your visit, complete with a legally binding oath of secrecy. If you are not a graduate student or university faculty, you’re likely to face more than a dozen steps before being able to actually publish your research. In some cases, researchers have to pay a sizable fee – routinely more than $5,000 – to access the information.

“I had to get fingerprinted,” says Prof. Andersen of Western, “even though I had my passport. What did they think, I was faking my passport?”

In other countries, the kind of data we keep cloistered in RDCs for privacy reasons is often simply scrubbed of identifying details and opened to the public. Says Calgary’s Prof. Tedds, “We know enough about how to censor and anonymize data that those concerns … they shouldn’t be concerns.”

Placing the burden of security onto individual researchers, in turn, means that reams of information, painstakingly gathered by our government and waiting to be sorted, distilled and interpreted – and, possibly, put to use improving Canadian lives – remain untapped. “I’ve had a few colleagues tell me they don’t study Canada because it’s too much of a pain in the neck,” Prof. Siddiqi says. “Of course I also want to study Canada, but at a certain point you have to throw your hands up.”

The recent controversy over Statscan’s plan to request customers’ personal financial data from Canadian banks might have given the impression of an outfit with a cavalier attitude toward privacy. In fact, the episode was deeply out of character for the agency. Typically, Statscan suffers from the inverse problem, what former assistant chief statistician Michael Wolfson calls “excessive privacy chill.”

The secrecy, bureaucracy and plain eccentricity that have come to characterize the country’s central data-gathering agency are far from unique among federal departments and ministries. Almost every one of them gathers and publishes its own significant stores of data – and Canada’s Auditor-General has spent years quietly pointing out how badly they tend to manage the task.

Glenn Wheeler, a principal in the federal watchdog’s office, says ministries often don’t gather enough data about their own policies to have a good sense of whether those policies are working – or don’t release enough data to convince the public, which is paying for the programs through tax dollars. “It’s a serious issue we find across our audits, across departments, across a number of years,” he says.

What Mr. Wheeler doesn’t mention, but is hard not to notice, is the number of data gaps that threaten to undermine policies the government of Justin Trudeau has put a lot of stock in – policies meant to address such issues as sexual abuse, the settlement of refugees and improving the lot of Indigenous Canadians. “Good policy is impossible without good data,” said Finance Minister Bill Morneau in a 2016 speech. But this government’s trademark policies often don’t have good data behind them.

In an audit of the Canadian Armed Forces released last fall, the auditor-general found that the military had “no centralized system to collect and track incidents of inappropriate sexual behaviour in a systematic way,” despite launching Operation Honour to combat sexual misconduct in its ranks in 2015. An Armed Forces spokesperson told The Globe that the military is now addressing the issue: a sexual-misconduct tracking system was “implemented” this past October and it will be “fully operational” some time in 2019.

Meanwhile, a 2017 study of the government’s efforts to settle Syrian refugees – one of the Trudeau government’s signature initiatives – found that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada was not gathering numbers on such key measures as the average number of months those refugees spent on income assistance, the effectiveness of the language training they have received, or the percentage of refugee children attending school.

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As the benefits of open government data become more widely accepted, Canada is falling behind many of its peer countries in making use of the stuff. Ireland publishes a comprehensive biennial data set on the well-being of children; Denmark tracks every aspect of gender equality; Britain breaks down many social-welfare indicators by ethnicity; and Australia publishes national workplace-injury rates – none of which can be said of Canada.

But no country throws our data failures into starker relief than does the United States. You might expect our southern neighbours to be data laggards: After all, theirs is a country that tends to prefer small government and emphasize individual rights over the common good.

Instead, Americans are world leaders at gathering and sharing an abundance of national numbers. “The U.S. has awesome data on almost everything,” says Jennifer Winter, director of energy and the environment at the University of Calgary school of public policy.

Some attribute U.S. public-data excellence to the country’s (small-r) republican form of government, which treats government property as the people’s. But it’s not just a question of national DNA. The United States has made strides in recent years as a result of deliberate government policy.

In 2013, then-president Barack Obama signed an executive order making government data open and machine-readable by default – a move which, remarkably, Donald Trump signed into law just this month after being presented with a bipartisan bill giving Congressional approval to the broad strokes of president Obama’s order.

During his tenure, Mr. Obama also hired Silicon Valley whiz D.J. Patil as the country’s chief data scientist. Mr. Patil’s marching orders: to free up more of the information that had been mouldering, unseen and unused, in federal government vaults. He realized, in short, that the country could solve more of its problems if it had more eyeballs trying to identify them. “Through these data sets, you get brilliant insights,” he says. “We’re harnessing the power of the country’s entire knowledge base.”

Embedded in Mr. Obama’s health-care law, meanwhile, was a sunshine list for payments made by drug companies to doctors. The data helped reveal some chastening facts. Among them: The more money the average doctor receives from opioid makers, the likelier she is to prescribe opioids; and even such small gifts as a single meal tend to tilt doctors toward prescribing more expensive brand-name drugs.

That analysis would not be possible in Canada; the numbers aren’t there. (Under its previous Liberal government, Ontario was on the verge of forcing pharma-payment disclosure, but the program has been put on hold by Doug Ford’s Conservatives.)

A disarming number of people who have spent time thinking about the problem come to the same conclusion about why this is: Yes, federalism creates data silos, and yes, Statscan is too risk-averse and cash poor, and yes, provinces and federal departments have a built-in incentive to keep their failures hidden with data blackouts. But maybe, just maybe, the problem has even deeper cultural roots. Maybe we’re just not curious enough about what goes on within our borders – blissful in our ignorance. Maybe, these people suggest, the problem comes down to Canadian complacency.

Tellingly, Canada’s Copyright Act, signed in 1921, gave the Crown the rights, for a full 50 years, to any work produced by any government department – a stark contrast with our southern neighbour, which banned government copyright in the 19th century. “The U.S., in its early history, made legislation that said, ‘We shall make this information available to the people,’ ” says Mark Leggott, executive director of Research Data Canada, a non-profit that helps researchers use public data. “In Canada, we made it so that the information was the property of the Queen.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Liberals’ 2015 election platform promised to “embrace open data” and stated that a Liberal government would “make government data available digitally, so that Canadians can easily access and use it.”

And, to be fair, the Trudeau government has certainly made some progress over the past three years. Most famously, it reinstated the mandatory long-form census, which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had axed in 2010.

A spokesperson for Jane Philpott, the minister of digital government, a portfolio recently created and tacked on to the Treasury Board, also noted that 81,909 data sets are available through the federal open-government portal (though many of those were published by previous governments). Anyone can now open their laptop and look up everything from Canada’s sulphur-oxide emissions, over time, to the country’s “spatial density of oats cultivation.”

Like the governments of every industrialized country, Canada posts far more data online than anyone would have thought possible 30 years ago. It actually tied for first with Britain in a recent “open-data barometer” created by the World Wide Web Foundation (though it’s worth noting that the ranking awards points for fairly basic achievements, like publishing government budgets and election results, and that Canada scored poorly on national environmental statistics).

Statistics Canada would like you to know that it is making progress, too. Anil Arora, the agency’s chief statistician, points to new technologies and techniques that are changing the way it collects public data. Last year, for instance, the agency crowdsourced black-market cannabis prices by asking the public to use an app called StatsCannabis. More than 20,000 people responded. Statscan is also experimenting with “virtual data research centres” that will make microdata more easily accessible by computer, although their inauguration is likely years away.

Notwithstanding the backlash to Statscan’s banking-information scheme – and anxiety in some quarters about giving government more power to gather the personal information of citizens – the public has also shown signs of embracing the value of government data in recent years. The cancellation of the 2011 mandatory long-form census had the unexpected consequence of raising the census’s profile, and maybe even its popularity. The 2016 response rate was the highest ever, at 98.4 per cent, suggesting that Canadians see taking part in data collection as their civic duty, provided their confidentiality is protected and they feel it’s for the public good.

To be sure, a problem as vast and diffuse as a country’s ignorance about itself can hardly be laid neatly at one government’s door, much less one ministry’s. Still, given the Liberals’ enthusiasm for evidence and openness, their reluctance to frankly admit that Canada has a data deficit and to propose concrete solutions is notable.

When asked to comment for this story, the Prime Minister’s Office deferred to the minister of digital government, whose spokesperson’s answers focused on the government’s achievements, especially relative to the Harper Conservatives, and who spoke in general terms about plans for more data openness in the future. For example, in response to a question about the dozens of data gaps identified by The Globe, the spokesperson replied, “We have reinstated the long-form census, unmuzzled government scientists, and made ministerial mandate letters public while tracking progress on those commitments to Canadians. We know there is always more work to do.”

The leaders of Statscan were also reluctant to take ownership of Canada’s data-gap problem. In an interview last year, Mr. Arora pointed a finger at academic researchers who are unable to ferret out the numbers they need. “I would argue that there’s still a lot of data that we have that either researchers don’t even know about or underutilize,” he said. “They find the vetting steps, the confidentiality component, to be a little too much for them.”

In the meantime, Canadian public data remains full of lapses, hesitations and holes – for things as basic as average wait times for mental-health services and the number of homeless people who die on our streets. And the data we have is often so hard to access, it might as well be hidden. Even Mr. Arora knows the dangers of asking the country to fly blind this way: “There could come a day when the population says, ‘You had access to all of these data stores and you could have reasonably used it to prevent something nasty from happening. Why didn’t you?’ ”

Mr. Arora posed his question as a hypothetical – but didn’t need to. Every day, Canadian governments have the chance to prevent nasty things from happening, by putting stark numbers in front of Canadians, so that the public can demand change where it’s needed and build on what the country is doing right. And every day, governments pass up the opportunity to do so. On maternal health, on Indigenous education, on environmental action, on the safety of drugs and the integrity of the doctors who prescribe them, on matters as seemingly mundane as how far Canadians drive and as patently urgent as the rate at which whole demographic groups are dying, governments deprive Canadians of the data needed to make good decisions. Every day, they leave Canadians in the dark.

Source: The cost of Canada’s data deficit When it comes to basic data about its own citizens – from divorce rates to driving patterns to labour trends – Canada simply doesn’t have the answers. If information is power, this country has a big problem.

The Liberal government wants to pin more medals on bureaucrats

This article does beg the question of whether this is a real issue compared to other under-representation. While the public service initiative is with respect to the wide range of awards under the Governor General, I have looked at Order of Canada recipients.

Under the previous government, there were efforts to improve representation with respect to regional representation (e.g., under-representation in the West, over-representation in Ontario and Quebec) and under-representation of the business community (see my earlier The Order of Canada and diversity).

Recently, it appears that Indigenous representation has increased substantially, and is now greater than their percentage of Canada’s population. Visible minorities, reflecting in large part their relatively newer presence in Canada, but also likely some network effects of not visible minorities, remain under-represented. And women’s representation seems to have plateaued at about one-third with a few exceptions.

And, as the article correctly points out, there are already a considerable number of existing public service awards, both general and department specific:

The Liberal government wants to see more medals pinned on the chests of public servants, and so has established a kind of quota system to make sure they’re nominated more frequently.

Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council and Canada’s top public servant, has pressed all federal departments to submit the names of at least five of their employees each year to the Governor General’s office for various awards.

“We encourage you to task the senior managers responsible for employee recognition within your department to begin nominating at least five public servants per year for Canadian honours,” says a letter co-signed by Wernick and Stephen Wallace, then-secretary to the Governor General.

The fall 2017 missive to deputy ministers, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, was followed up last year directly by the Governor General’s office to ensure departments were co-operating.

“We look forward to hearing about your department’s strategy to recognize deserving individuals in your department whose achievements, contributions or accomplishments have made a difference or have had a positive impact on your organization,” says an email from Sylvie Barsalou, administrative officer with the Chancellery of Honours.

The Liberal government initiative was triggered by an internal assessment that concluded public servants historically have been “underrepresented” within the Canadian Honours System, which includes a broad range of medals and decorations.

“[W]e are taking steps towards reversing this phenomenon,” says the Wernick-Wallace letter.

Called ‘underrepresented’

A spokesperson for the Governor General cited statistics for the Order of Canada, one of the Government of Canada’s highest honours, to support the claim that public servants are underrepresented.

“Between 1976 and 2018, people whose contributions were considered ‘public service’ made up, on average, 2.4% of annual appointments to the Order of Canada,” Sara Regnier-McKellar said in an email.

“Over this time period, public servants comprised an average of 5.9% of Canada’s employed labour force each year.”

The phrases “public service” and “public servants” in this context, she said, refer to those working in all kinds of governance and government, including Indigenous governments and municipal, provincial and federal governments.

The impact of the new nominating initiative is unclear. Both the Governor General’s office and the Privy Council Office (PCO) say they are not counting nominations submitted by federal departments.

“We do not monitor or track nominations and have no plans to do so,” said PCO spokesperson Stephane Shank.

At least one department – Innovation, Science and Economic Development – formally launched the PCO initiative internally on Aug. 15, 2018, says a briefing note to the deputy minister.

“It is anticipated that most nominations will be submitted for the Meritorious Service Decorations,” says the note, also obtained under the Access to Information Act.

Civilians in silver

Civilian versions of the Meritorious Service Decoration – either a service cross or a medal, both of silver – were introduced in 1991, complementing a military variant. A formal nomination requires the names of three people as references, as well as a full description of the reasons for making the award.

More than 800 civilian service crosses and medals have been awarded since 1991 — about 28 each year.

The Wernick-Wallace letter also says departments might consider nominating their employees for the Order of Canada. Wernick himself sits on the committee that vets such nominations.

There’s no shortage of other awards specifically reserved for federal public servants. The annual Public Service Award of Excellence, for example, recognizes five categories, including “outstanding career.” There were 123 recipients last year (131 in 2017); each one receives a medal.

And new awards are being added each year. The newly created Parliamentary Protective Service, which has provided security on Parliament Hill since June 23, 2015, recently launched an awards program involving gifts such as jewellery, art and show tickets to recognize excellence, long service and retirements.

Canada’s new information commissioner, Caroline Maynard, also created a new award last year for access-to-information officers, selecting two employees (at the Canada Revenue Agency and the Canada Border Services Agency) as the inaugural recipients.

The Canadian Press reported in 2013 that the Treasury Board of Canada was spending an average of more than $100,000 a year on gifts and prizes for public servants in that department.

The Governor General’s office alone is responsible for 13 categories of national awards, and lists a total of 413,526 people in its database of previous and current recipients.

Public service full to bursting with deputy ministers

Alan Freeman on the growth in the number of deputies, picking up on some themes of Donald Savoie:

Here’s a quiz. How many deputy ministers are there in the federal government’s Treasury Board Secretariat?

If you answer “one,” you’ll get a point for logic. After all, as you learned in your first-year university Canadian politics course, a deputy minister is the top public servant in a government department — the boss — whether it’s Transport or Global Affairs or Treasury Board.

But this being Ottawa in 2019, “one” is the wrong answer. How about six? That’s right. The Treasury Board actually has six top officials in the deputy minister (DM) category. Five are full deputies and a sixth is an associate deputy. They’re all appointed by the prime minister to their jobs, and get better salaries and more generous pension benefits than other executives, all for being part of the (once) exclusive club of Ottawa mandarins.

Treasury Board is just one example. Deputies are popping up throughout the federal government like potholes in March. Global Affairs has four, at last count, National Defence three. But it’s Innovation, Science and Economic Development (the old Industry department) that wins the Oscar for best performance in deputy overkill. It’s got four deputies, plus five other DMs, if you include the heads of the five regional development agencies the department supervises. That’s a total of nine.

Of course, the same department has four ministers, including full ministers for science, tourism and small business. A mini-government of its own.

It’s an extraordinary phenomenon that’s the result of political expediency and bureaucratic empire-building. As of today, there are 83 deputies in the federal government: 38 deputy ministers and 45 associate deputy ministers, an increase of 11 positions in the past decade. Since the Trudeau government was elected, nine have been added.

The number of executives in the government has been growing like topsy for years, at twice the growth rate of the public service as a whole. The deputy explosion is just another symptom of a system that’s out of control.

This growth has not just added people, it’s added new layers to the top bureaucracy. Where once there were a group of assistant deputy ministers with specific responsibilities reporting to a deputy at the top of the departmental bureaucratic hierarchy, there are now senior assistant deputy ministers, associate deputy ministers, and even senior associate deputy ministers, all adding to the general confusion.

“It’s huge. It’s cumbersome. They’ve created a whale that can’t swim,” says Donald Savoie, the New Brunswick academic who has studied the federal bureaucracy for decades.

“All of these people have to be relevant, so they create work for themselves. They slow everything down.”

How did we get here? As Savoie notes, the position of associate DM developed a few decades ago. Part of it was classification creep. Then was the desire to reward public servants who may have been very competent, but didn’t have the “gravitas” to make it to the deputy level.

Another reason, according to Savoie, was that promotion to associate DM was seen as a way of getting around wage freezes imposed on senior bureaucrats. If you can’t give a trusted official an annual increase, promote him to a higher-paying job. First it was only the big departments that got an associate DM. Then they spread everywhere. Even a small department like Veterans Affairs now has an associate deputy minister, both appointed by the PM, both with DM salaries.

Politics have also intervened, particularly since the Liberals returned to power. Remember that first Trudeau cabinet, the gender-equal one with 15 men and 15 women? When people found out that five of the women were actually “junior” ministers of state, all hell broke loose and Trudeau was forced to make them all full ministers, with higher salaries. But that also meant they needed a deputy or an associate to help them out with their “portfolio.”

So we have a weird kind of deputy minister, who reports to a minister but doesn’t really have a conventional department to take care of. There’s Guylaine Roy, who became a deputy last summer when Mélanie Joly was demoted from Canadian Heritage and was given the smorgasbord job of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie. The actual public servants (it must be a tiny number) seem to have stayed in their home departments, so it’s hard to know what exactly a deputy is in charge of in those circumstances.

Likewise, a new deputy was appointed for Status of Women when that became a full cabinet position and department again.

And there’s now a deputy minister for public-service accessibility, who was appointed in July when Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough was given the additional responsibility of improving access for people with disabilities in the federal sector. At the same time, the chief information officer, Alex Benay, was promoted to a DM-level job. Both are part of the Treasury Board gang of six.

Improving accessibility may be a laudable goal, but why is there a need for a full deputy minister? Using the same logic, you could argue that there should be a deputy minister to encourage women in the public sector, or visible minorities or Indigenous people. There’d be no end to it.

And of course, there’s now an associate deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement whose sole responsibility is the Phoenix pay system. That seems a guarantee that the job will be around long after the system is fixed or replaced.

Is there any end in sight? Not really. This week, there was another cabinet shuffle and another newly minted minister, this time for Rural Development. Bernadette Jordan got the job, largely because Trudeau needed an MP from Nova Scotia in the cabinet and there seemed no other place to put her.

By Friday, a new breeze of austerity had clearly blown in from the Privy Council Office, which now says Jordan will be supported by the existing deputy minister at Infrastructure for some of her files, and by the Innovation deputy for the rest. A bit of a respite from the DM tsunami, but you can be sure it won’t be long until another new deputy minister is created.

Source: Public service full to bursting with deputy ministers

ICYMI: Harper’s dissatisfied public servant more myth than reality, new research shows

Interesting study, using the Public Service Employee surveys that include all government core public administration employees (core public administration and participating agencies: Participating departments and agencies).

The strength of this study lies in its coverage of all employees, but the weakness lies in that it aggregates all their views together (at least based on this article) rather than breaking them down by employee group, organization etc.

A more interesting article would be to contrast the survey results of executives, generally with more exposure to the political level, and other employees, with less, along with departmental comparisons broken down similarly:

The portrait of the disgruntled public servant, beaten down by a poisonous workplace culture and years of disregard under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is oft-painted — and, generally speaking, pretty inaccurate, according to a research article published Dec. 17 in Public Personnel Management, an academic journal for human resource and public sector executives.

While job satisfaction among federal bureaucrats decreased slightly during Harper’s time as prime minister, it remained “quite high” overall, writes Jocelyn McGrandle, the article’s author and a PhD candidate at Concordia University. McGrandle based her findings on data from the federal government’s 2008, 2011 and 2014 Public Service Employee Surveys.

“Over the past five years in the Canadian political landscape, there have been numerous calls for rejuvenating the federal public service due to toxic work cultures and a general disrespect for public servants,” McGrandle wrote. “Much of this was directed at the Conservative government under Stephen Harper.”

So strong was this outrage that the Public Service Alliance of Canada rolled out an anti-Harper campaign prior to the 2015 federal election, McGrandle pointed out. Then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also penned a letter to public servants promising a new era of trust and respect for the bureaucracy, if elected.

And let’s not forget “Harperman,” the 2015 protest song crafted by Environment Canada scientist Tony Turner that called for Harper’s ousting and led to Turner’s suspension from his job.

“2015 was such an interesting election with the public service very clearly coming out, not in favour of a particular party, but certainly against one party,” said McGrandle in an interview, when asked to explain her desire to research this particular topic. “That was sort of my puzzle: Is the public service that dissatisfied? Or is this a bit of political posturing?”

Having analyzed the data, she’s inclined to believe the latter.

“Much of the lack of satisfaction seems to be mostly political rhetoric,” McGrandle concludes in her article. While overall job satisfaction — ranked by survey respondents in the public service on a five-point scale — declined from an average of 4.14 to 4.05 between 2008 and 2014, “satisfaction, even at its lowest point in 2014, still remains relatively high.”

The significance of this finding goes beyond debunking a popular political mythology, according to McGrandle. It also underscores the importance of surveys like the triennial PSE survey, which the government committed to conducting more frequently starting in 2018.

“These employee surveys … can be used to measure how public servants actually feel, not how they are told they should feel during the course of an election.”

Paul Wilson, an associate professor in Carleton University’s political management program, says he’s not surprised by the result of McGrandle’s research. Not only does it align with some of the findings of his own work on a related subject — he co-authored a book chapter that looked at the relationship between political staffers and public servants under Harper — but it reflects what he witnessed firsthand as director of policy in the prime minister’s office from 2009 to 2011.

While certain personalities and departments in the public service may have clashed with Harper’s government — it’s hard to forget the affectionate mobbing of newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by foreign affairs officials — Wilson said relations between both parties were “generally good.”

He’s readily admits he’s far from an unbiased observer but offered his account of a relationship about which many have speculated but few experienced directly.

“One criticism I heard about prime minister Harper was that he didn’t listen to the public service.”

In fact, said Wilson, Harper read every single memo that came his way, cover to cover.

“He wanted advice from the public service, he carefully considered the advice from the public service, and then he made a decision on things — and sometimes he agreed, and sometimes he didn’t.”

“I think that was a significant thing for the public service, to know that they could always get information to the prime minister and that he would always take it seriously.”

Wilson also noted that direct interactions between the low- and mid-level bureaucrats who make up the majority of the public service and their political leaders are limited.

“Most public servants don’t interact with the political types — they don’t meet the minister, they don’t meet the political staff … so most people know the political side through what they read in the media and things filtering down from people who are engaging directly.”

The extent to which political leadership actually has an impact on job satisfaction among public servants was not a relationship McGrandle was able to investigate directly in her research for the article, as it wasn’t asked about on the Public Service Employee Survey.

“I think there’s certainly an argument for looking at that,” she said. “How satisfied are public service employees, does it really have to do with who is in power? And maybe their own political leanings, or just how that party or leader happens to treat the public service?”

Further, McGrandle wasn’t able to measure pre-Harper job satisfaction as the question she used to measure the variable wasn’t asked on the 2005 PSES. Nor has she had a chance to look at the results of the 2017 PSES, the first conducted under the current Liberal government.

“Maybe we saw a decrease or an increase under Justin Trudeau, I have no idea.”

In her article, McGrandle did identify a number of variables most likely to have the largest impact on levels of job satisfaction among Canadian federal public servants, from a list of personal characteristics (age, gender, level of education, visible minority status), job characteristics (job fit with skills, interests, levels of training and opportunities for promotion), and organizational characteristics (satisfaction with superiors and positive relationships with coworkers).

Exploring this area is important for policy-makers, she reasoned, given the potential link between improved job satisfaction, increases in organizational performance, and lowered costs that can result from absenteeism and employee turnover.

Wilson also pointed out that satisfied bureaucrats are an important recruitment tool.

“We want to be able to recruit excellent people into the public service, and if people feel that it’s a dead end, or that they aren’t listened to, then who’s going to want to work there?”

McGrandle found that the strongest determinant of job satisfaction was job fit with the respondents’ interests. She hypothesized that “employees reporting a higher level of job fit with interests will report higher levels of job satisfaction,” and was proved correct.

The second strongest determinant of job satisfaction was the respondents’ view of their relationship with their supervisor, followed by their relationships with coworkers and job fit with their skills. Positive views towards all three were associated with increased job satisfaction.

If the public service were to act on these findings with the goal of improving employee job satisfaction, McGrandle said, that could look like ensuring an individual’s interests as well as their skills match with the job they’re applying for during the hiring process, as well as fostering healthy employee-employee and employee-superior relationships.

While McGrandle said that overall, she was happy with the variables she was able to examine in her research, she wasn’t able to investigate specifically how salary might affect job satisfaction. She also noted that it’s possible that short-term factors like Phoenix-induced disruptions in pay could affect a public servant’s satisfaction with his or her job, and influence the results of more recent PS employee surveys.

Source: Harper’s dissatisfied public servant more myth than reality, new research shows

There is nothing Orwellian about collecting accurate, real-time data: Barrie McKenna

Good commentary. Given the Conservatives legacy in downgrading the Census to the less accurate National Household Survey in 2011, their record on these kinds of issues is suspect.

And, as McKenna notes, “Worse than Big Brother is Blind Brother:”

To hear Conservatives spin it, Statistics Canada’s plan to gather the banking and spending records of hundreds of thousands of Canadians is akin to “Big Brother on steroids” and an “Orwellian intrusion into the lives of Canadians.”

The truth isn’t nearly as sinister. Rest assured, the government is not plotting a massive surveillance campaign to find out what you ate for lunch or your monthly mortgage payment.

Guess what? Ottawa already has your social insurance number – because it gave it to you. And it has your tax returns.

The government does, however, need better data to provide a complete and accurate portrait of Canada’s economy and society, in real time. As part of a “modernization” of its operations, Statscan wants banks, cellphone companies, retailers and other companies to share more of the so-called big data they have, and leverage them for the collective public good.

As Canada’s chief statistician Anil Arora put it: “Traditional statistics gathering methods are no longer sufficient to accurately measure Canada’s economy and social changes.”

Yes, some of the information Statscan wants to gather is personal. But all personal identifiers, including names, addresses and social insurance numbers, would be removed before any of it is compiled and released to the public. That’s what the agency already does routinely with census data, the monthly household survey and vast amounts of competitively sensitive corporate information.

Statscan has been peeking into our lives for a long time. Unfortunately, response rates from the agency’s traditional surveys have been falling, leaving it with often suspect and outdated data to feed into its key reports. The agency says getting access to financial transactions is vital to producing a timely, accurate picture of the economy.

As it should, Statscan is working closely with the federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien to ensure personal data are not put at risk, or shared publicly. It’s up to Mr. Therrien, who last week launched an inquiry into Statscan’s big data pilot project, to set the rules, and then let the agency do its job.

Statscan is hardly unique. Statistics agencies around the world are similarly leveraging big data for public policy purposes. And that’s unambiguously a good thing, according to University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan.

“This research is vital to forming good government policy and providing good economic information to the private sector,” Mr. Milligan says. “Statistics Canada should and does work with the privacy commissioner to balance the good that comes from research to the potential challenges to privacy.”

It’s ludicrous to suggest Ottawa is spying on Canadians. What Statscan is doing is tapping into what the private sector already knows about all of us, and aggregating it for public consumption.

If you’re seriously concerned about letting others see your financial records, shopping habits and internet surfing behaviour, well, that horse left the barn a long time ago.

Just think for a minute what companies such as Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bell, Facebook, Google, Amazon or the operator of the Highway 407 toll road already know about what you did today, or in the past month. Stitch it all together, and it’s your life in bits and bytes.

Canadians should be more concerned that there are adequate controls over what these companies are doing with your data. Perhaps Canada’s big banks are resisting giving your data to Statscan because they are more interested in exploiting it themselves.

The more ominous privacy threat may not be Statscan. The greater risk may lie with the major private-sector collectors of big data, many of which are foreign owned and store it all far beyond the reach of the government. And they often operate with far weaker privacy constraints than government agencies.

Governments already know plenty about you. There are census data, passport photos and records, tax filings, municipal property records, health records, driving offences and court records. No reasonable person would suggest this is somehow part of a nefarious Big Brother spying plot.

The agency’s data-collection pilot is not the problem. It is part of the solution. For years, Statscan’s ability to do its job was eroded by steady budget cuts. The current Liberal government reinstated some that funding in this year’s budget, with an additional $41-million over five years to improve the agency’s ability to do its job.

Worse than collecting more data is having a data deficit. Governments, and businesses, risk making major mistakes without accurate, real-time data.

Worse than Big Brother is Blind Brother.

Source: There is nothing Orwellian about collecting accurate, real-time data: Barrie McKenna

The term ‘alt-right’ has become a cudgel against conservatives: MacDougall

Two good op-eds by Andrew MacDougall, calling on both parties to tone down the virtue signalling and name calling:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Gerald Butts, the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Ahmed Hussen, the federal immigration minister, and Lisa MacLeod, Hussen’s provincial counterpart, walk into a bar and…

Fine. I’ll spare you the joke, which (believe me) requires a mountain of set-up, and instead leave you with the punchline: Lisa MacLeod is a white supremacist!

What? That’s not funny? Well, I suspect that’s in the ear of the beholder. In any case, please direct all complaints to the Prime Minister’s Office, ℅ Mr. Butts, the author of the joke.

To be fair, the Butts quip wasn’t that blunt or direct. He wouldn’t dare call MacLeod a white supremacist outright. His dig was of the dog-whistle variety, one the federal Liberals have been blowing with increasing frequency as we approach the next election. And so let’s just say it wasn’t a surprise to see it deployed following the acrimonious federal-provincial meeting on immigration starring Hussen and MacLeod.

“Enough is enough,” Butts tweeted after the meeting. “It’s time to stand up to this divisive fear-mongering about asylum seekers. Let’s not allow the alt-right to do here what they’re doing elsewhere.”

And what were the particulars of the Hussen-MacLeod dispute, that it devolved to “fear-mongering”? It hardly matters. It’s the use of “alt-right” that’s key. Indeed, it’s the latest slur gifted to the right from the left. That’s why Doug Ford is now “alt-right.” It’s why Andrew Scheer is “alt-right.” And it’s why cookie-baking hockey mom MacLeod is “alt-right,” too.

And as with so much else in the world today, we have Donald Trump to thank for it.

It was Trump who brought the “alt-right”—then, as now, a bunch of white supremacists and violent fascists—into the light. But the President’s tacit acceptance of these “deplorables” gave license to Trump’s political opponents to paint all of his support—the vast majority of which are neither racist or supremacist—with the alt-right brush, especially those who oppose the current immigration system, which no one can describe as perfect. This is the dynamic the Liberals—once the purveyor of sunny ways, let’s not forget—seem to be trying to import into Canada.

Although the migrant problems facing Canada’s borders are nowhere near the scale of those between Mexico and the United States, they are as complex, and nearly as intractable, absent a willing partner in the White House. Hence the PMO’s desire to reach for the shorthand of the “alt-right”: It’s better to brand your opponents than explain why you can’t get the job done.

Because MacLeod is certainly correct that the feds don’t (yet) have a workable plan to stem arrivals at non-designated border crossings. She’s also correct when she says the provinces are bearing a lot of the costs of housing and caring for refugees and asylum seekers. Nor is she the only one raising the alarm; it’s been a constant criticism from the federal Tories as well. No wonder it rankles the PMO. I’d be yelling “alt-right” too, especially if I knew my opponents didn’t have a workable plan either.

Now, Butts doesn’t actually think MacLeod is a noxious white supremacist like Richard Spencer, the lodestar of the U.S.’s alt-right movement. But he is certainly happy to have that association linger in your mind, no matter how untrue or uncharitable it might be. Here, the application of the label “alt-right” is meant to stifle debate on immigration, not encourage it. If there can be no reasonable critique made on immigration then the status quo, no matter how bad, will carry the day.

It’s a trick the right has pulled on the left on many occasions. A school shooting? Can’t criticize the Second Amendment, my fellow American, or else you ain’t a patriot. Or, to pick a less noxious example, any plan by a left-of-centre party to raise a tax—any tax—is evidence of economy-killing communism or socialism. Again, it’s a tactic meant to kill nuance and throttle debate. Just ask Stéphane Dion about his “Green Shift,” aka the “permanent tax on everything.”

The Liberals are clearly casting around for slurs that stick in a similar fashion. They’ve largely leaned on using Stephen Harper’s name as a bogeyman; voters grew tired of the Harper government’s perceived nastiness in the last election, hence the longtime Liberal habit of shouting “Harper” in every crowded theatre. It’s why Trudeau himself fronted the “it may be Andrew Scheer’s smile, but it’s still Stephen Harper’s party” attack line at the recent Liberal convention. Slagging Harper sells.

But it doesn’t work nearly as well when speaking about problems the Liberals have created, like the deficit, or inherited and made worse, like the border. Tweeting “Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada” might have won a news cycle, but it’s come back to bite the Liberals in the backside in the form of multiplying “temporary” asylum shelters and an  overwhelmed processing system.

Step forward the “alt-right.” And even if the shoe doesn’t quite fit, the Liberals are going to try their damnedest to make the Conservatives wear it. Because, whether Canadian conservatives like it or not, a lot of their European brethren are piling in against immigration in a nasty fashion. And the reality is that Canada’s vaunted all-party support for immigration might crumble all the same if it faced European-like numbers of asylum seekers, too—just the kind of circumstance that birthed such alt-right movements elsewhere. No conservative party is truly safe.

Nor should liberals rest easy either. The European left is struggling mightily too, and it’s largely because they underestimated the people’s tolerance for an immigration system that clearly could no longer deal with what was coming its way.

To fight back against the alt-right slur, Conservatives in Canada need to do three things: keep supporting much-needed immigration and legitimate refugee claims; avoid hyperbole while making valid criticisms of the government’s actions; and uprooting any actual and visible forms of alt-right support in their party. The Republicans missed their weeding moment; the Tories can’t afford to miss theirs.

Because if they do miss it, it will be Trudeau’s Liberals who have the last laugh—no matter how poor their joke.

Source: The term ‘alt-right’ has become a cudgel against conservatives

And:

…First and foremost, opposition politicians need to stop performing for their bases and begin the challenging task of reaching out to Ford’s supporters. This is both the path to a more civilized discourse, as well as the eventual route back to power.

This isn’t to suggest the opposition remain quiet or docile. Far from it.

Ontario’s system of government requires a strong opposition, especially in holding a majority to account. But a sober critique can land as effectively as a headline-searching cheap shot. Mr. Ford’s support isn’t a monolith; it can be picked off if done reasonably. If he bungles government, people will notice.

And the opposition’s lessons apply equally to the media.

So much of today’s surging populism is fuelled by the sense the arbiters of a society’s discourse – including the press and the politicians they hold to account – are happy to ignore their views. And right now a lot of people are worried about crime and border security. Mr. Ford understands that. Their fears might not necessarily be backed up by statistics, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Here, the sneering tone of journalism on platforms such as Twitter does the profession no favours.

The media need to remain clear-eyed in their work, even if the Premier isn’t their cup of tea. It was a mistake to equate Ford Nation with Mr. Trump and his “deplorables” during the campaign, and it remains a mistake now that Mr. Ford is in government. One thing is certain: The “fake news” drumbeat, still quiet in Canada, will surely grow louder with every unforced reporting error and torqued editorial position.

Premier Ford might not like the press (what politician does), but he isn’t in the class of Mr. Trump. For the moment Mr. Ford is busy running his government, not running against the media. That Mr. Ford doesn’t court or flatter the press shouldn’t count against him, even if it does ultimately make his job more difficult.

For his part, the Premier would do well to keep his ears open to legitimate criticism. Yes, “the People” have spoken and, yes, there are still many promises to keep, but there is also wisdom to be found on all sides. Lashing out at critics isn’t a plan; Mr. Ford must keep his famous temper in check if he is to keep “the People” on his side.

Governing is a marathon, not a race. Mr. Ford won’t secure his re-election in a single day, nor will he be defeated in one. Keeping the hysteria to a minimum gives voters the best chance to make a reasoned decision the next time around.

Ford is not Trump. Ontario’s opposition would be wise to lower the outrage

Sharp increase in number of government employees fired for misconduct, incompetence

Although from a small base, some progress:

The number of federal public servants fired for misconduct or incompetence has risen sharply in recent years, according to figures obtained by CBC News.

The government sacked 1,316 full-time public servants between 2005/06 and 2015/16 — 726 of them for misconduct and 590 for incompetence or incapacity.

An additional 862 were let go before they finished their probation.

While it’s a small percentage of the more than 260,000 people who work in federal government departments, the number of people being fired for incompetence or misconduct has been on the rise.

The number of public servants who lost their jobs for misconduct rose 67 per cent, from 55 in 2005/06 to 92 in 2015/16, the last year for which figures were available from Treasury Board.

The number of people fired for incompetence has also increased. In 2005/06 the government fired 49 people for incompetence or incapacity. In 2015/16 that number rose to 77 — a 57 per cent jump.

Union leaders say the number of people fired is just the tip of the iceberg. Most federal public servants who are disciplined face lesser sanctions, such as reprimands or suspensions.

Neither unions nor the Treasury Board can say exactly how many federal government employees have been disciplined for misconduct or incompetence without being fired.

Chris Aylward is president of the largest public service union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada. He said the number of public servants fired each year is only a fraction of the number of those who are disciplined.

“That’s certainly just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly there’s a lot more public sector workers, I would think, being investigated and being disciplined but at a lower level — either written reprimands or oral reprimands.”

Experts say one reason for the jump in the number of people being fired is a change that went into effect in 2014 in the way the government tracks the performance of its employees.

Nick Giannakoulis, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), said his union has noticed an increase in the number of public servants being fired in the past two years — largely as a result of that new management system.

“Now, from an infrastructure perspective in terms of how PSPM (public service performance management) is managed electronically within departments, that is a much tighter process. So there’s not as much latitude as there once may have been.”

Former Conservative Treasury Board president Tony Clement says technology is making it easier for the government to catch bad behaviour by public servants.

Conservative MP Tony Clement, who was president of the Treasury Board when the change went into effect, said the push for the new performance management system came from top public servants, not from cabinet.

“It was, I believe, in a sense of continuous improvement, the public service — particularly at the senior management levels — wanted to root out people who were taking advantage of taxpayers or taking advantage of their positions or involved in some other form of malfeasance.”

Changes in technology are also playing a role, Clement said.

“If there’s somebody who is using time for a moonlighting job or is stalking someone — all of this stuff is now online or can be found on the e-mail servers. So, if you have a reasonable apprehension that somebody might be involved in malfeasance, there are ways to trace this now that weren’t there before.”

In June, the head of the public service, Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, sparked controversy when he complained that it was too hard to fire people who work for the federal government.

Testifying before the House of Commons Public Accounts committee looking in the Phoenix payroll scandal, Wernick said that deputy ministers have “precarious employment” with no job security or formal employment contracts, but it is difficult to dismiss people at other levels.

“Below the level of deputy ministers, if you’re covered by the Public Service Employment Act, then you have very strong job security. You can only be terminated for cause, which is a legal test.

“It is extremely difficult to fire people in the public service for poor conduct or poor performance.”

Wernick’s comments angered public service union heads like Aylward, whose members are still struggling with the error-plagued Phoenix payroll system.

“If he wants to start firing public servants, maybe he should start with the ones who were responsible for implementing Phoenix,” he said.

It can take months, if not years, for the government to fire someone — particularly if it’s a case of incompetence rather than misconduct.

Giannakoulis said before a government employee can be fired, their manager has to first do a performance evaluation documenting problems with their performance. They then have to draft an action plan to help an employee and to give the employee a chance to improve or work on the problems that were identified.

“It depends, really, on the complexity of a matter,” he explained. “Generally, it’s not something that can be done overnight. They do have to follow due process, natural justice. So sometimes it could take the better part of six months to a year, depending on the circumstances.”

Even then, the employee and the union can fight the dismissal.

“In some instances they are well documented cases,” said Giannakoulis. “In other instances, the employer often doesn’t do a good job in terms of following their own internal process.”

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said it’s important for the government to have to demonstrate cause before firing someone for not being able to do the job.

“It takes about a year if you want to do it right.”

In cases of misconduct, however, it can happen much faster, she said.

“If it’s something like an employee has been caught with child pornography on their computer, it doesn’t take a year to demonstrate cause. It can happen overnight.”

Michel Vermette is the chief executive officer of APEX, which represents public service executives. He said the goal of the performance management system is to improve the performance of employees.

However, the increase in the number of public servants being fired demonstrates that the government does have the tools to get rid of employees when other measures don’t work.

Those tools aren’t always used, he said.

“It is onerous. You have to document it. You have to have those discussions. You have to offer the opportunity to the employee (to improve).”

Source: Sharp increase in number of government employees fired for misconduct, incompetence