Chapter 1.4: Understanding users' needs and maintaining relationships
Information produced by national statistical offices (NSOs) must be relevant and must inform programs and policies, the socio-economic environment, and the public economic and social debate. Information needs are constantly changing and are becoming more and more sophisticated. As a result, NSOs need to constantly adapt to changes to ensure relevance.
To reach that goal, a statistical agency has to understand its stakeholders and its users' needs. "The statistical agencies should build and sustain very good relationships with all of their key stakeholders, including users, data providers, funding agencies, senior government officials, relevant community organizations, and the media."Endnote 1
It is important to consult stakeholders and users for the following reasons:
- They contribute to identifying data gaps in statistical programs;
- They participate in consultations as new surveys are developed or existing surveys are improved;
- They provide data;
- They provide administrative data files that can be used to complement survey programs;
- They use data to inform programs and policies.
A statistical agency must always endeavour to find out what information users need. One of the major pitfalls to avoid is to assume that the agency can determine, on its own, users' needs. While the statistical organization will inevitably have to make difficult choices among competing demands for information in a context of limited resources, these choices must be backed by solid knowledge, based on high-level consultations with users and experts, of the policy implications of each competing demand. Such knowledge is an essential input to successful strategic planning by a statistical agency. Here are the principles that should guide statistical organizations' relationships with their users:
- The quality of the information produced must always be properly defined to users. That is essential for users to be able to assess fitness for purpose and to uphold the credibility of the organization.
- Regular exchanges with users, particularly on issues of relevance and quality, establish and maintain trust and legitimacy in the eyes of users and respondents.
- This trust often leads to additional requests for statistical data produced for users on a cost-recovery basis; that is, for a fee. To maintain the reputation of a neutral, professional organization, Statistics Canada can take on this work only if it has the required capacity and the work is congruent to the national statistical agency's mandate and adds value to the national statistical system. Please refer to Chapter 1.6: Partnerships on a cost-recovery basis.
Statistics Canada understands the importance of meeting users' needs. This is a requirement under the Statistics Act. As the core of a centralized statistical system, Statistics Canada has the obligation to serve all statistical needs, to the greatest extent possible, among levels of government, research communities, businesses and the general public (for more details on the centralized statistical system, please refer to Chapter 1.1: Leadership and coordination of the national statistical system.
Strategies, mechanisms and tools
A number of strategies, mechanisms and tools are available to statistical agencies to help them continually improve relationships with data users. There are two guiding principles in this regard: one is to ensure that consultations take place with various types of users (from different communities); and the other is to ensure that it be done consistently rather than in an ad-hoc way.
Statistics Canada counts on a broad range of users with a wide scale of technical skills sets to access and use the data:
- federal departments
- provincial, territorial and municipal governments
- non-governmental organizations
- academic bodies and think tanks
- general public
- international organizations.
Those users are regularly consulted through a variety of approaches. This section describes the most relevant and efficient strategic approaches followed by Statistics Canada.
1. The National Statistics Council
The formal mandate of the National Statistics Council (NSC) is to "advise the Chief Statistician in setting priorities and rationalizing Statistics Canada programs." Members of the NSC are appointed for a period of three years, subject to renewal. The NSC comprises about 40 members.
Originally members were appointed by the Minister from a list of persons recommended by the Chief Statistician. In 2010 the Minister delegated this to the Chief Statistician, and since that time all members are now appointed by the Chief Statistician.
Members of the NSC act on an individual basis; they do not act as representatives of particular interests.
The factors that optimize the NSC's impact are the following:
- diverse representation and interests;
- experience in a broad range of sectors from across the country ;
- recognition of members in their field.
As a result of these measures, the NSC is a very knowledgeable, diverse, and representative group.
The NSC normally meets twice a year. Included among regular agenda items are "Statements by Members," in which NSC members may raise questions or concerns either for immediate response or subsequent discussions, and an in-depth report by the Chief Statistician on recent developments at Statistics Canada (including new substantive initiatives, analytical insights, forward planning and budgetary expectations). Other agenda items usually deal with major program updates—such as the censuses, environment statistics, longitudinal data, issues in social statistics, National Accounts, dissemination practices, pricing policy, privacy and record linkage, contingency planning in the face of expected budget cuts, and significant statistical information gaps.
The meeting agenda is composed of items raised by members and issues identified by Statistics Canada in discussion with the Chairperson. From time to time, a subgroup of the NSC is formed to address particular issues (e.g., access to historical censuses).
The NSC generally provides feedback to the Chief Statistician through discussion among its members. Consensus is usually (though not always) achieved. Resolutions and formal recommendations are rare, although the Chairperson has been authorized by the NSC, on a few occasions, to write to the responsible Minister, on topics such as securing funding for testing the 1991 Census and the impact of potential additional budget reductions on the outputs of Statistics Canada.
The Chief Statistician considers the NSC's advice as substantially beneficial. In addition, through the recognition of its members and on the basis of precedent, the NSC has evolved into an additional and—should the need arise—undoubtedly very influential bulwark in the defense of the objectivity, professional integrity and independence of Canada's national statistical system.
2. Committees and official meetings with major federal government users
Statistics Canada interacts with all federal departments and agencies. Consultation mechanisms are in place, particularly for the major federal government users listed in the text box 1.4.1.
Box 1.4.1: Main users of Statistics Canada's information in the federal government
- Bank of Canada
- Department of Finance Canada
- Innovation, Sciences and Economic Development Canada
- Health Canada
- Environment and Climate Change Canada
- Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
- Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
- Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs
- Department of Justice Canada
- Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada
- Canada Revenue Agency
- Global Affairs Canada
- Transport Canada
- Travel and Tourism
- Infrastructure Canada
- Natural Resources Canada
- National Defense and the Canadian Armed Forces
- Heritage Canada
- Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
- Service Canada
These government departments and agencies are Statistics Canada's primary stakeholders: their programs and policies are the main drivers of much of the agency's statistical programs, and they finance the vast majority of the cost-recovery work carried out by Statistics Canada.
It is thus crucial to maintain strong relationships with these departments and agencies. This is done through both horizontal and bilateral relationships, at every level of the government hierarchy, from the Deputy Minister to working analysts. These relationships have developed through regular meetings (horizontal and vertical), the creation of committees, and data sharing agreements.
The Chief Statistician is a member of the Deputy Minister community. This group meets weekly and the current and forward-looking issues on which the government is focusing are discussed. He also meets, usually on an annual basis, with the Clerk of the Privy Council, who is the head of the federal public service, to discuss the performance of, and issues facing, Statistics Canada.
The Chief Statistician also participates in several horizontal Deputy Minister-level committees on the economy, social trends and public-sector administration (the list of the major committees and their mandates is provided in Table 1.4.1).
|Source: Privy Council Office (2015), Policy Horizons Canada (2015).|
|Public Service Management Advisory Committee||To provide a forum for discussion of the public service management agenda.|
|Deputy Ministers' Committee on Economic Trends and Policies||To examine trends and develops scenarios with respect to economic issues and future challenges to Canadian competitiveness and long-term prosperity, including flows in trade and investment, the effects of new technologies on policy, ethical issues and regulatory capacity.
To examine the role of government and the impact of policy interventions, such as regulatory frameworks, labour market policies, and incentives for investment, in sectors such as transport, infrastructure, manufacturing, natural resources, fisheries and agriculture.
|Deputy Ministers' Committee on Social Trends, Policies and Institutions||To examine trends and develop scenarios with respect to social issues, including inequality and the exclusion of at-risk groups, crime and justice issues, and threats to our health and well-being, individually and in our communities.
To examine the impact of policy interventions to address these issues, and to strengthen communities and belonging as well as the role played by institutions and jurisdictions in these efforts.
|Policy Horizons Canada Deputy Ministers' Steering Committee||To provide timely and integrated perspectives on emerging policy issues for the Deputy Ministers' community by the following means: bridging people, ideas, data, issues, and evidence in an open and constructive environment; co-creating knowledge for understanding complex Canadian policy challenges; and experimenting with new tools and methods.|
|Deputy Ministers' weekly Meeting||Weekly meetings where deputy ministers are debriefed on the government's priorities and where they discuss plans and priorities.|
A statistical agency must also take full advantage of meeting with the heads of key user organizations. For example, an annual meeting with the Governor of the Bank of Canada and his most senior officials is a key opportunity for the Chief Statistician and his assistant chief statisticians to discuss important issues regarding the data produced by Statistics Canada.
At different levels of the organization, assistant chief statisticians, directors general, and directors participate in horizontal-level committees on strategic directions for developing statistical information. They meet with their counterparts of policy departments once or twice a year, according to the nature of their programs. These committees are key to governing relations and discussing priorities with key policy departments. It is important to clarify that these meetings are not taking place at the same time but, rather, department by department to focus on specific issues and topics and maintain high-level involvement and interest.
3. Committees and agreements with provincial, territorial and municipal government users
Canada is a confederation, where responsibility for government programs is shared across federal, provincial, territorial and municipal jurisdictions.
Statistics Canada, through the Statistics Act, is responsible for overseeing the national statistical system. This includes coordination of statistical activities across the provinces and territories. This also requires that Statistics Canada, to the maximum extent possible, cater to the statistical needs of all levels of government, as well as those of the private sector.
Provinces and territories have major jurisdiction in areas, such as administration of justice, health and education. The provincial and territorial programs and policies can and do differ across the thirteen jurisdictions. Thus, the determination of horizontal needs for statistical information access and use of data can become quite complex.
To support this role, Statistics Canada has put in place three mechanisms:
3.1 Federal-Provincial-Territorial Consultative Council on Statistical Policy and its subordinate committees
Established in 1974, the Council's mandate is to coordinate federal-provincial-territorial aspects of the national statistical system. One of the main purposes of this mechanism has been to serve the needs of the respective governments for information from Statistics Canada.
Statistics Canada has asked each province and territory to name an individual within their administration to serve as a focal point on statistical matters. Most provinces have chosen to name the head of their provincial or territorial statistical office. Each provincial and territorial counterpart signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 1989, setting out relative roles and responsibilities.
In its operations, Statistics Canada liaises with the focal points on an ongoing basis. In addition, every year, the Chief Statistician meets with the focal points at the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Consultative Council on Statistical Policy to discuss high-level issues of priorities, statistical policies and programs.
The Council ensures that
- information requirements and outputs are reviewed to maintain the relevance of programs;
- changes in priorities are ascertained, to avoid program duplication by data sharing;
- arrangements for the supply of administrative data are made; and
- definitions, standards and practices are harmonized.
Under the aegis of the Council, a number of more specialized committees have been struck to discuss more detailed issues of program operations and implementation.
Thus the Council oversees six subordinate statistical committees focused on specific domains:
- Agriculture Statistics
- Economic Accounts
- Census of Population
- Labour Statistics
- Social Statistics.
Each of these committees is chaired by a senior executive from Statistics Canada, and meets annually.
3.2 Data sharing agreements with provincial and territorial governments
Data sharing agreements relate to the sharing of statistical activities that take place in that province or territory. While ensuring confidentiality is protected, these agreements are in place to enhance the collaboration between Statistics Canada and the provinces and territories and also avoid duplication in the information collected by government departments.
3.3 Consortia of municipalities and non-governmental organizations
In November 2013, Statistics Canada initiated extensive dialogue with a number of municipalities to explore avenues for making effective use of existing administrative data held by municipalities in order to fill data gaps, with particular attention being given to the need for small-area information. To facilitate this process, in early 2014, Statistics Canada recruited representation from the municipal-government level to its NSC.
4. Advisory committees
In addition to the National Statistics Council, which sits at the pinnacle of a system of advisory committees, there are other advisory committees that bring together distinguished experts in a particular field (from business, government, non-governmental organizations, and academia) to provide more detailed guidance on program operation and implementation.
The role of these advisory committees is to provide advice and guidance to Statistics Canada and the Chief Statistician on all aspects of the agency's statistical and analytical programs, including advice on program priorities, survey design and content, dissemination of information, and statistical methods. These advisory committees fall under the authority of the agency's Executive Management Board.
Members of the various committees are appointed by the Chief Statistician on the recommendation of subject-matter areas. They are selected on the basis of their unique insights, abilities, and professional qualifications. They do not represent the views of their employer or those of any other group or body of which they might be a member. Appointments are for three-year terms, with the possibility of renewal.
The list of the various advisory committees is provided in Box 1.4.2.
Box 1.4.2: List of advisory committees at Statistics Canada
- Agriculture Statistics
- Canadian Health Measures
- Demographic Statistics and Studies
- Environment Statistics
- International Trade
- Labour and Income Statistics
- National Accounts
- Population Health Survey
- Postsecondary Education Statistics
- Price Measurement
- Services Statistics
- Social Conditions
- Statistical Methods
5. Networking with businesses
Businesses are both respondents and data users. Statistics Canada considers that two issues are very important to businesses:
- The burden for respondents to complete Statistics Canada's surveys. Large businesses regularly receive more than one survey to complete.
- The need to safeguard confidentiality, to prevent the sharing of their confidential information with their competitors.
To address these concerns, Statistics Canada has made inroads to replace survey data with administrative data, for example, tax data. Temporary relief measures have also been implemented when certain respondent burden thresholds have been reached.
In fact, as part of Statistics Canada's efforts to reduce respondent burden, an ombudsman is available to help business survey respondents.
The ombudsman's role is to investigate complaints from business survey respondents who believe they are unduly burdened or have been treated unprofessionally by Statistics Canada. The ombudsman's services are impartial and free of charge.
6. Networking with academics and think tanks
For academics, Statistics Canada has created secure research data centres in universities across Canada, where students and professors can access social statistics microdata under tight security provisions that are meant to safeguard the confidentiality guarantee that Statistics Canada gives to its respondents. Statistics Canada allows limited access to business microdata from its headquarters, located in Ottawa, given the greater issues of confidentiality with business records. For more information, please refer to Chapter 4.4: Access to microdata.
Statistics Canada also participates in a certain number of conferences and events with the academic community.
7. The media and the general public
To maintain the trust of and collaboration with the general public, Statistics Canada has established ongoing relationships with the media and the general public through appropriate channels, including
- the media, through ongoing access to Statistics Canada spokespersons and experts in the field;
- social media platforms and interactive features accessible through the agency's website, such as blogs and online chat sessions with Statistics Canada experts;
- events and informal consultation sessions, such as the Talking Statistics series;
- the Statistical Information Service.
The public hears about Statistics Canada through the media. It is therefore crucial to maintain effective media relations. Chapter 4.2: External Communications and Outreach details the mechanisms used to inform, and to connect and engage with, the media and the general public.
8. Networking and partnerships with international organizations
Participating in activities of international organizations—such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development—promotes coherence with international standards and methods, and with statistical definitions and concepts. Statistics Canada exchanges with its peers, who are mostly part of the international statistical methods community.
Contacts are established and maintained through exchanges of technical materials, visits, and attendance at international conferences in order to leverage best practices, which are key to ensuring professional relevance of the agency's methods.
Key success factors
Consultations should be perceived and implemented as a two-way mechanism. A national statistical agency can produce relevant, quality data, only if it understands the major analytical requirements of the end user at a very early stage in designing or improving statistical programs.
The other important element is educating users on proper use of statistical data, including analytical workshops, data interpretation workshops, school curriculum textbooks and dissemination of metadata.
Finally, increasing the use of bilateral meetings over multilateral meetings is key to more efficient mechanisms for consulting on, and for discussing and understanding, users' needs.
Challenges and looking ahead
Finally, it is crucial to recognize that neither Statistics Canada nor any other statistical agency can satisfy and address all users' needs. However, knowing that relationships with users are critical to building quality statistical outputs, statistical organizations should analyze their users' needs with due diligence and ensure that they:
- understand users' most important requirements;
- obtain and maintain their trust; and
- address their real concerns about confidentiality, privacy and burden, as they are also respondents.
- Endnote 1
United Nations Statistics Division. 2012.
Return to endnote 1 referrer
Policy Horizons Canada. 2015. Who we are. Ottawa. Consulted on the 14th of January 2016 and retrieved from http://www.horizons.gc.ca/eng
Privy Council Office. 2015. Deputy Minister Committee Mandates and Memberships. Ottawa. Consulted on the 14th of January 2016 and retrieved from http://www.pco.gc.ca/index.asp?lang=eng&page=secretariats&sub=spsp-psps&doc=comm/mandat-eng.htm
Statistics Canada. 2015. Corporate Business Plan: Statistics Canada 2015-2016 to 2017-2018. Ottawa. Consulted on the 14th of January 2016 and retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/about/bp
Statistics Canada. 2014. Ombudsman for business survey respondents. Statistics Canada. Consulted on the 14th of January 2016 and retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/survey/ombudsman
United Nations Statistics Division. 2012. Guidelines for the Template for a Generic National Quality Assurance Framework (NQAF). Prepared by the United Nations Expert Group on National Quality Assurance Frameworks. New York. Consulted on the 14th of January 2016 and retrieved from http://unstats.un.org/unsd/dnss/docs-nqaf/GUIDELINES%208%20Feb%202012.pdf
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