StatsCan officials settle for incomplete census forms

OTTAWA — Census workers are settling for incomplete long questionnaires in the final push of the summer collection period, raising concerns the data will be even more compromised than originally feared.

OTTAWA — Census workers are settling for incomplete long questionnaires in the final push of the summer collection period, raising concerns the data will be even more compromised than originally feared.

The new, voluntary National Household Survey was the controversial replacement for the long-form census, eliminated last summer by the Conservative government.

The Tories said it wasn’t right to threaten Canadians with jail time or fines for not answering the detailed questions on everything from religion to education levels.

Former Industry Minister Tony Clement urged Canadians to fill out the forms anyway, but the government is doing less to ensure they are returned and fully filled out.

Under the previous system, census workers would call up a household that had not filled out its mandatory long questionnaire, and then pay a visit — or even several — to make sure it was completed.

Now Statistics Canada is accepting incomplete forms — called partial responses — and there is no followup.

“On the (short) census, we will follow up since the census is mandatory, so if we don’t have a minimum amount of information or there are inconsistencies, it is possible that we’ll call people to clarify the information that was provided,” said Marc Hamel, director general of the census management office.

“We don’t do that on the National Household Survey. We make the assumption … if they have omitted to complete one question or a section, we go on the assumption knowing that it’s a voluntary survey that they’ve omitted to complete that on purpose.”

One census enumerator, who spoke to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity, said workers had been instructed to accept the long forms with as few as 10 of 84 questions answered. They can also declare somebody has given them a “total refusal” simply by speaking to them on the phone.

“We can try and convince them and talk about how it’s a good thing, but a lot of people shut down the conversation quickly when they find out it’s not mandatory.”

Don McLeish, president of the Statistical Society of Canada, said partial responses could cause problems in using the data because some of the analysis is done by looking at the answers to different questions together.

“Certainly some of the useful information obtainable from the long form were things like the relationship among several variables — age, income, housing is one obvious thing,” McLeish said.

“That determines things like whether or not you should put up a seniors’ home in a particular place. It’s the relationship among variables that’s critical. If one of those three things is missing, then that jeopardizes any inference you might want to draw.”

McLeish adds that if certain questions are left blank for large portions of the population, this could further erode any comparability with previous, mandatory censuses.

Other statisticians and users of census data have warned that a voluntary survey would skew the results because certain segments of the population — the rich, the poor and aboriginals for example — would be less inclined to fill it out.

Visits to households that didn’t fill out forms, or that left certain areas blank, allowed StatsCan to identify where their weak spots were in the system and then to later account for them, McLeish said.

But Hamel says it’s much too early to determine what the response rates will be for the 2011 census and long form.

Workers will be in the field until at least July 29 on the census, and until August 19 on the survey, and Hamel said everything seems to be running as expected. He said StatsCan has not encountered any significant confusion among the public over what is mandatory and what is voluntary, nor has there been a massive rejection of the voluntary survey.

The quality of information received from Canadians who filed their census data online has been high, Hamel noted. The agency has predicted a 50 per cent response rate to the long survey, while conceding it didn’t quite know what to expect.

“It’s too early to say . . . . We still have hundreds of thousands of households to follow up with out there,” Hamel said.