In the first post of this two-part series, I looked into traditional indicators, those that the government uses to assess its own policies: GDP growth, employment, investment and exports. We saw that, according to the data, the first two years of the Couillard government were all in all rather mediocre: no catastrophes, but nothing noteworthy either.
However these indicators are in and of themselves problematic. They only tell part of story, making them interesting in some regards, but insufficient when considered on their own. We have access to a ton of data on other indicators that is worth consulting to appropriately assess a government's performance. I will go over four such indicators in this blog post.
“Does everyone have enough to eat?” seems to me to be the foundation of all economic proposals. It is therefore worth asking if more or less people have been going to bed hungry since the government has taken office, and therefore assess its performance. Luckily enough, Canada has an indicator, the Market Basket Measure (MBM), that is a demonstrably good tool to answer the question. In Quebec, the Centre d’étude sur la pauvreté et l’exclusion (CEPE), a government-run observation, research and discussion centre, publishes the most recent data on its website. It's represented on Chart 1.
Chart 1: Ratio of individuals below the Market Basket Measure, Quebec, 2006 to 2013 (%) Source: CEPE, Taux de faible revenu d’après la mesure du panier de consommation (MPC, base 2011), pour les personnes et les personnes dans des unités familiales, selon l’âge, le sexe et le type d'unité familiale, Québec, 2002-2013.
What does the graph show? The number of people without enough means to meet their basic needs seems to be have been going up in the last few years, a trend that would confirm, up to 2011, the findings of our study on the human deficit. However, the data is only available up to 2013, i.e. a full year before the current government took office.
The same goes for the low income measure (LIM, another measurement of poverty): the latest available data on Statistics Canada's website dates back to 2013. To judge the government on its ability to decrease poverty, the data just isn't available. It's too bad because I think it's crucial to know whether more or less people are able to cover their basic needs now than before.
State of the health system and population health
Health care is one of the largest areas of government spending. The government could therefore be judged on the state of its population's health and of its health care and social services. It's however hard to measure a population's “health” because there are a number of competing indicators. The same goes for the overall health care system, which can be assessed according to a variety of criteria, as colleagues have pointed out in this brochure.
Fortunately, the Canadian Institute for Health Information gathers very interesting data on a website called Your Health System. It covers health care access and quality, disease prevention, population health and government health care expenditure. Data from the different provinces can be compared and assessed across time. It's truly wonderful. There's just one problem: the latest available data generally dates back to 2013 and, in a few rare cases, to 2014. Once more, the lack of data prevents us from properly reviewing the first two years of the government currently in power in Quebec.
Postsecondary education enrolment
We could also measure if the government is doing a good job by looking at education-related indicators. We could be tempted for example to check if more or less young people have enrolled in CEGEPs (grade 12 and freshman university year) and universities since the government took power. Chart 2 presents the latest available data on the topic.
The steady growth of this indicator is certainly encouraging. However, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the rest of Canada has enjoyed slightly faster growth over the same period even though it had more ground to cover. Furthermore, the data does not answer the question we've asked because it ends with the year the current government took office.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Judging a government on its ability or inability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is certainly very relevant given that climate change is one of the greatest problems we face today. Good thing that the ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and the Fight against Climate Change holds an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions in Quebec. Chart 3 was taken from its most recent edition.
Chart 3: Greenhouse gas emissions, Quebec, 1990-2013 Source: Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques, Inventory of Greenhouse Gases in Québec: Inventaire québécois des émissions de gaz à effet de serre en 2013 et leur évolution depuis 1990, Quebec, 2016, p. 9.
We could again celebrate the fact that emissions have steadily dropped since 2003, but we need to take into account our carbon budget, i.e. the amount of greenhouse gases that we can emit if we are to meet the targets set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Once more, a meaningful indicator is unavailable for the period concerning the government in office, the last available data being that for 2013.
Fighting against what is left behind
This blog post could have looked at a number of other indicators: pay equity between men and women, unionization rates, the number of minimum wage workers, etc. We could have, for instance, built upon the OECD Better Life Index or the Social Progress Index, a recent indicator that combines a number of indexes and in which Canada ranks quite high. These choices would all have been good ones, but none could have given us the information we need on the impact of the current government's actions for the very same reason as the previous indicators: the data is not available yet.
Some data is particularly complex to gather, other indicators take a lot of time to compile. However, unemployment rates and GDP growth are also very hard to calculate, yet data is released with only a few months delay. The indicators I covered in this blog post are three years old.
One remarkable difference is the time and money that our governments choose to invest in the various indicators through its organizations. To keep on eye on the unemployment rate, Statistics Canada conducts each month the Labour Force Survey, which boasts a 56,000-household sample size. The data is released the following month. A colossal amount of work is put into gathering and analyzing the data, and a lot of resources must be allocated to the survey for it to be completed so quickly. We do it because, socially, we consider that this data is important, and rightly so! It's useful to know which proportion of the population holds a job.
Thing is, we end up with a very limited number of tools to assess any government's performance. Their availability in part dictates priorities: if we had new data each month on how many people were unable to meet their basic needs, maybe the issue of poverty would become more important? In any case, the media would hopefully get used to presenting this indicator and treat it with as much seriousness as the unemployment rate, for instance.
If a specific and narrow understanding of the economy takes up so much space in public debate, it's partly because we value the data with which it is concerned over other data, which is just as important. It's as if, on the one side, there were proper, serious indicators through which we can assess governments and, on the other, fun facts that we can look at from time to time to have a general sense of where our society stands. These indicators would nonetheless help understand in very concrete terms how our society evolves and how to achieve better political decision-making.
Simon Tremblay-Pepin is a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.