StatCan calling

July 16, 2014

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There’s a knock on your front door. You wait, wondering if they will go away. Another knock. You pull back the curtain to check. Then, you slowly open the door.

Good news! It’s Statistics Canada!

Every day across Canada, in cities, small towns and farms, Statistics Canada interviewers knock on doors, or make phone calls, or use a web application to make sure that survey questionnaires are as complete as possible. Collection lies at the heart of what Statistics Canada does. And, it makes a huge difference to the quality of the data if as many people as possible are included in the results.

Linda Harrison, a 20-year veteran interviewer in Mississauga, Ontario, started work as an interviewer when her children were young, so she could balance parenting duties with survey-taking. She liked the job’s flexibility, the independence, and the sense of accomplishment.

And, she soon discovered that she has a knack for putting people at ease. The talking part comes easily. She is naturally outgoing, friendly and direct.

“For a field interviewer, the biggest part of the job is convincing people to give their time, that this is valuable information, that they should invite me into their home or give me their phone number to follow up. I find if people understand the importance of the data collected, they will give the answers.”

Why me?

One of the first questions asked by respondents is often, “Why me?” In fact, for most social surveys, people are not chosen to be surveyed. Addresses are. If your household does not respond, Ms. Harrison does not wander next door or into another neighbourhood. It means the data is not as reliable as it could be with a complete sample.

A second part of her job is imparting the idea that filling out a census or survey form is part of civic duty, and that the data collected is important to the operation of governments at all levels, as well as private sector businesses. High-quality data is crucial for evidence-based decision making whether it is to design a new social program, build a school or decide where to locate a new seniors residence.

It is not exactly a cold call when Ms. Harrison knocks on a stranger’s door. Statistics Canada sends letters to each household before interviewers begin their rounds. Still, the knock can seem intrusive. “A good interviewer needs to have no fear. They need confidence. They need to speak with authority. It is not a job that everyone can do,” she says.

Survey techniques

Before they venture out, interviewers are trained on how to carry out a specific survey. “The general public is much more informed than they used to be. They are a lot more wary. They are much more concerned about confidentiality, identity theft. They want to verify documentation, that the letter is real. That means that I need all the information available about how the survey is being done and how the information is being used, so that I can share that information,” says Ms. Harrison.

Interviewers are also made aware of interview techniques to avoid introducing bias either directly or indirectly through their body language.

Work has evolved over the years. For instance, the Survey of Household Spending once took 1.5 hours to complete, and asked for great detail about the respondent’s spending habits. Now, a revamped survey takes much less time. Also, secure data linkage spares respondents from providing the same information to various government departments.

The advent of the laptop has also assisted interviewers. Results are not only compiled faster, but security is enhanced. “The laptop is a great tool. It feels professional. People know that laptops are encrypted, that once the laptop is closed, their information is confidential,” she says.

On the other hand, cellphones have made interviewers’ lives tougher because StatCan samples are tied to physical addresses. Yet, Ms. Harrison finds that once contact is established, the cellphone generation is willing to complete surveys. In a recent visit to a secure apartment building filled with young tenants, she found that they opened their doors willingly.

Like many Canadians, summer holds a special place in her heart. “I always look forward to daylight savings time each year. It is much easier to contact households during daylight hours. Winter is a hard time for interviewers.”

Not surprisingly, Ms. Harrison always takes the time when someone calls her home to ask if she is willing to fill out a survey. It is empathy, of course, that she feels for the person doing the tough job of asking questions to a stranger.

But she also feels a touch of curiosity about the way that others conduct surveys and represent their businesses. “I love my job. I wouldn’t be good at my job if I did not like it,” she says. Part of that love is seeking feedback and finding ways to improve her approach to lessen the burden on respondents and to make the survey experience a positive one.

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User comments

What educational background do you need to become an interviewer?

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