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Statistical agencies: a comparison of the U.S. and Canadian statistical systems.

Editor's note: A snapshot of how the statistical systems are organized in the U.S. and Canada was presented to the Committee on the Budget of the House of Representatives in August 1996 by the U.S. General Accounting Office. The report was in response to the committee's request for information on the Canadian statistical system and a comparison with the U.S. system. The following article is excerpted and adapted from that report.

Several differences between the United States and Canada affect work performed by the nations' statistical systems. The United States has a much larger population than Canada has. The United States' population is 264 million, and Canada's population is 29 million. Measured to respective gross domestic products, the U.S. economy, at more than $7 trillion, is also much larger than the Canadian economy, at $611 billion (in U.S. dollars).

The U.S. economy is also substantially more complicated than the Canadian economy. An example of this is seen in the financial sectors of the two economies. Nearly 10,000 domestic banks operate in the United States. The Canadian banking and financial services systems are much more centralized, with six domestic banks. Financial markets in the United States are also more complex. U.S. financial markets often pioneer the use of sophisticated financial instruments, such as derivatives, that make the value of trading particularly difficult to measure.

Canada's parliamentary government can provide a more unified source of direction to its departments and agencies, including Statistics Canada, than can the system of government in the United States. In the Canadian system of government, agencies are directed by members of the Cabinet, who are also members of the majority party in Parliament. Statistics Canada, under the Canadian Constitution, also must respond to provincial governments' statistical needs; by policy, it seeks to meet the public information needs of the private sector. In the United States, the direction of statistical agencies is affected by the constitutional separation of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government and the dispersal of congressional authority among authorizing, appropriation, and oversight committees, which can provide multiple sources of program and budget decisions that affect the U.S. statistical system. Statistics Canada also receives guidance from provincial governments and the private sector.

The federal statistical systems in the United States and Canada are based on different organizational and budget structures. The U.S. statistical system is highly decentralized, while the Canadian system is centralized. Due to the decentralized nature of the U.S. statistical system, each U.S. statistical agency receives current-year appropriations, either as a specific line item in the budget or through allocations from its parent organization's budget. Canada, however, has a single budget for Statistics Canada.

The U.S. Decentralized System

In the United States, responsibility for producing federal social and economic statistics is divided among approximately 70 agencies. Eleven agencies, located in nine departments, have statistical activities (e.g., collecting, analyzing, producing, and disseminating statistical data) as their primary missions. (See GAO/GDD-96-107). U.S. federal statistical agencies often cooperate with each other in collecting and using data. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) relies on the Census Bureau to conduct the Consumer Expenditure Survey - a key component in the BLS' program to update the market basket that it uses in determining the Consumer Price Index - as well as the Current Population Survey - the source of monthly data on employment and unemployment. The result of agencies using data collected or generated by other agencies is a federal statistical system that is highly interrelated yet decentralized, so there is a need to coordinate the system's activities.

Some data used by the agencies in the U.S. statistical system also come from state and local government records. For example, quarterly estimates of employment and wages produced by BLS are gathered from unemployment insurance reports compiled by state employment security agencies. Most of the principal federal agencies have their own cooperative agreements with state and local governments for obtaining and disseminating statistical data on particular topics, such as agriculture,health, and education. There is no single process or protocol for data sharing between federal and state governments.

Congressional recognition of the need for strong oversight and coordination of the decentralized federal statistical system has resulted in assigning the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) the responsibility for 1) overseeing the federal statistical system and coordinating its activities and 2) legislating creation of the position of chief statistician, "a trained and experienced professional statistician."

Thus, the U.S. statistical system has a highly decentralized structure, with OMB's role being to coordinate the system's activities rather than to directly manage them. Many statistical activities conducted by the agencies in the system are outgrowths of the activities related to the missions of their parent departments, and the system's decentralization reflects those activities. Various commissions have reviewed the federal statistical system and subsequently urged greater coordination but generally have not recommended statistical agency consolidation. An advantage of the current organizational structure is that it places statistical agencies within the cabinet departments with related responsibilities. This means, for example, that those who are collecting agricultural, energy, or health statistics know what the issues are in their particular area and where statistics are needed.

Although the U.S. statistical system is decentralized, it has been able to achieve at least some of the efficiencies associated with a centralized system such as Canada's. For example, the U.S. has centralized much of the collection of data from households through the use of reimbursable agreements between the Census Bureau and other federal agencies. Through the use of these agreements, Census collects data for agencies that they would otherwise have to collect themselves; the agencies reimburse Census for this work.

Statistics Canada: A Single Agency

In contrast to the U.S. statistical system, the Canadian statistical system is centralized. A single agency, Statistics Canada, describes itself as the core of Canada's socio-economic information system. Statistics Canada's legislative mandate is to collect, compile, analyze, and publish statistical information on the economic, social, and general conditions of the country and its citizens. This economic and social information is produced at the national and provincial levels and, in some cases, for major population centres and other sub-provincial or "small" areas.

By having broad access to government records, Statistics Canada can use, for statistical purposes, data that are collected by other government agencies in fulfilling their missions. Statistics Canada produces statistical information based on such data, if the information is of broad interest. Statistics Canada also conducts surveys for other government agencies and funds these surveys by recovering its costs from the agencies that requested them. The chief statistician noted that when agencies request Statistics Canada to conduct such surveys, the agencies must be prepared for public dissemination of the results.

According to the Canadian chief statistician, Statistics Canada is well prepared to address the statistical needs of other government agencies, including those that do not fit neatly within the jurisdiction of a single department or agency. Considered the main advantages of Canada's centralized statistical system are

* a high level of efficiency, achieved by avoiding the duplication of expensive infrastructure;

* flexibility to reallocate resources according to systemwide requirements;

* a high level of conceptual coordination and harmonization that ensures that the different parts and aspects of the economy are measured without gaps and overlaps;

* respondent benefits, by ensuring the lowest possible level of reporting burden through an intensive internal sharing and exploitation of all data that are collected; and

* a high level of client convenience through one-stop shopping.

Statistics Canada is headed by the chief statistician of Canada, who reports to the Minister of Industry(1) and is organized by activities or fields. There are six fields, each of which is headed by an assistant chief statistician. Three of these fields produce statistical information, while the other three support this production. Among the three production fields is the Social, Institutions, and Labor Statistics field, whose responsibilities include the census of the population, household surveys, demographic estimates, and income statistics. The functions of this field are similar to the demographic activities of the Census Bureau and the labor market activities of BLS. The Business and Trade Statistics field of Statistics Canada compiles statistics on the production of Canada's manufacturing and service industries. The field also produces statistics on Canada's trade with other countries. The field is roughly equivalent to the section of the Census Bureau responsible for economic and merchandise trade statistics. The responsibilities of the National Accounts and Analytical Studies field of Statistics Canada are similar to those of BEA in that it compiles information on the economic performance of Canada and produces such key statistics as the gross domestic product estimate.

The fields in Statistics Canada are divided into branches that are responsible for several related statistical programs. Within branches are divisions, which are responsible for specific statistical programs.

Statistics Canada also provides information on health care (e.g., data on hospital admissions and accident victims, characteristics of disabled and handicapped citizens, and a National Population Health Survey) and education (e.g., enrollment, graduates, personnel, programs, revenues and expenditures of Canadian educational institutions, and a National Longitudinal Survey of Children). In the United States, such programs would involve or be the responsibility of the National Center for Health Statistics in the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Center for Education Statistics in the Department of Education, respectively. Similarly, Statistics Canada houses the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, which it describes as the focal point of federal and provincial initiatives to provide national justice statistics and information. In the United States, the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Department of Justice has a comparable role.

The Informatics and Methodology field, the Communications and Operations field, and the Management Services field support the work of the statistical production fields within Statistics Canada. For example, the Informatics and Methodology field is to ensure that all surveys used in Statistics Canada are methodologically valid and statistically efficient. These functions parallel the OMB review and clearance process in the United States and statistical agency responsibilities for ensuring data quality. The Informatics and Methodology field also is to manage information processing for all of Statistics Canada.

Other departments and agencies also play a role in collecting data that Statistics Canada uses. Departments and agencies collect such data principally to be able to carry out their administrative or regulatory mandates, but Statistics Canada can use those data to produce broadly used statistical information. For example, Canada Customs collects merchandise trade data using documents that importers and exporters must file, such as cargo control documents, commercial invoices, and import accounting coding forms. The Statistics Act authorizes Statistics Canada to have access to these records, which form the basis for statistical information on Canada's international trade. (This is analogous to how the U.S. Customs Service's data are used by the Census Bureau in compiling trade data.)

Like U.S. federal statistical agencies, Statistics Canada also relies heavily on data from records maintained by provincial and local governments. In Canada, provinces have primary responsibility for administering education, health, and justice programs and supply their data to Statistics Canada, which in turn compiles statistics on such areas as criminal justice, medical care outcomes, and literacy. The mandate of Statistics Canada includes meeting the needs of the provinces for statistical information. Each of the 10 Canadian provinces has a statistical office that works with Statistics Canada. In addition, Statistics Canada sponsors a Federal Provincial Consultative Council on Statistical Policy, which is the vehicle for coordinating policy on data exchanges between Statistics Canada and the provinces. Each province has a member on the council appointed by the province's premier. The council is chaired by the chief statistician. In addition to supplying data, the provinces are also heavy users of data produced by Statistics Canada, particularly data relating to provincial economic and social conditions.


1 A minister in the Canadian parliamentary government has executive responsibilities similar to a cabinet secretary in the U.S. government, although ministers are also members of Parliament.
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Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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