Analysis: Data hounds fearful as Canada cuts stats budget

Wed May 2, 2012 4:03pm EDT
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By Louise Egan

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Just two months ago, economists and policy wonks were cheering the news that Statistics Canada, the much lauded government statistics office, had eliminated fees for its online databanks, making millions of figures available for free.

Now the quantity of that data is under threat from the biggest budget cuts in recent memory. Experts fear the quality will fall as well, hurting Statscan's global reputation and compromising data that shapes government financial and social policy, as well as business investment.

Layoff notices have been sent to nearly half of the agency's 5,700 staff. The final job cuts will be far smaller than that, but there is bound to be pain.

"Government departments will see the volume and detail of information available sharply reduced," Chief Statistician Wayne Smith said last month in a somber private message that spoke of 2012 as "a year of sacrifice."

In a video of his address obtained by Reuters, Smith said spending cuts at Statscan would be much deeper than the C$33.9 million ($34.2 million) - or about 7 percent - outlined in the federal budget due to an "unprecedented" loss of an additional C$20 million in income from other government departments.

Three quarters of the savings would come from cutting programs, meaning fewer surveys, less data and less analysis.

Right now, Statscan employs an army of experts to conduct 350 surveys that range from the market-movers like employment to curiosities like dried egg stocks and beekeeping.

Statscan and Canada's Conservative government aren't saying what they will cut. But Ottawa says the impact will be minimal at Statscan and across the entire federal bureaucracy as it seeks to eliminate the budget deficit by 2016.   Continued...

Former Statistics Canada chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, waits for the start of the Commons Industry committee on the long form census on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, July 27, 2010. REUTERS/John Major