Former Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh’s resignation was a brave and admirable act.
As a former public servant, having worked for Conservative, Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments for almost 30 years, and as a former colleague of Munir Sheikh, I feel compelled to say something about Munir’s unusual, sad, and admirable decision this week to step down as Canada’s Chief Statistician. I have elsewhere added my voice to the growing number of Canadians asking the government to reverse its decision on the census but there’s even more at stake here – about Statistics Canada and about the public service.
Canada’s senior public servants almost invariably have a deep commitment to service to their country and to the institutions of government within which they serve. In Canada, our professional, non-partisan public service has traditionally been guided by the principle of “fearless advice and loyal implementation.” This is based on the belief that governments work best when they have access to the best possible information, options, and advice – including what they may not wish to hear – and, in the end, democracy demands that the public service implement loyally whatever lawful decision the elected government of the day makes – whether the public servants agree or not. That’s how it works when it works. I know Munir to be a man of great integrity, committed to the value and values of a professional, non-partisan public service.
By the way, non-partisan does not mean and has never meant that one is devoid of views. How could we expect that of people committed to service to their country? It means that the public service serves loyally the government of the day, and honest, even fearless advice at every level of the public service is an important if invisible part of how this institution serves best.
Munir also had another responsibility as Canada’s Chief Statistician and that is to protect the integrity and credibility of the agency and its products without which Statistics Canada cannot deliver its mandate. In Munir’s introduction to the Statistics Canada website he spoke with evident pride of the objectivity and neutrality of the agency’s data. Statistics Canada, which has earned a sterling international reputation, has long understood that it can do its job of informing public and private decisions and supporting democratic accountability only if people trust in its integrity and technical competence.
I have not yet had the opportunity to talk with Munir but I imagine that this is why he felt it necessary, when doubts arose about what Statistics Canada advised, to acknowledge publicly that the voluntary approach he was to implement is not a substitute for the mandatory survey. No Chief Statistician would want people to lose trust, to think that Statistics Canada compromised its technical advice to the government or would, in any way, misrepresent the information it provides to Canadians. This goes to the heart of the agency’s credibility and of the values of public service.
Let me be clear about what this was not. This was not a public servant substituting his own judgment for that of the government or in any way being disloyal. Quite the contrary: in the face of criticism from colleagues, Statistics Canada seemed poised to implement the voluntary approach and, in the traditions of public service, Munir was and continues to be publicly silent about his advice. Nor was this an instance of a public servant fighting for turf or more resources. This is not about defending big government or public service jobs as some critics of government and public service will immediately assume. Indeed the voluntary approach will cost more and require more people. Munir himself played a major role in the past in cost cutting and reducing the size of public service, and since becoming Chief Statistician, he has overseen cuts to surveys, cuts which the agency and some of its clients found very difficult and troubling, but which he did nonetheless and with no visible controversy. No, it was none of these things. This was about the integrity of Statistics Canada and of the public service. The decision to replace the long form census with a voluntary version put the Chief Statistician in a difficult position. The way the decision was handled put him in an impossible position.
It is sad that it came to this and admirable that Munir made this difficult and brave decision. I hope something good comes of it.