Back to basics in the Census

Hopefully, 2023 will be the sensible Census.

Hopefully, New Zealanders en masse will co-operate and fill in the forms — electronically or on paper — assiduously.

The Census has always been important in underpinning government and local government decisions.

Its results help businesses and organisations plan and — in an age of data analysis — could be more useful than ever.

The last Census, in 2018, was a debacle.

As was later admitted: "There were failures in the governance, strategic leadership, structure and culture of the Census operation."

One in seven did not respond, there was an "independent" review and the chief statistician resigned.

Poor and less-educated communities were worst affected. One possible figure for the Maori response was only 68%.

People did not receive their codes, many did not then know what to do with them, the call centre was inadequate and other issues led to the fiasco.

Information release was delayed three times as statisticians worked on other information to try to fill gaps.

One wonders if the highly educated, well-paid officials in Wellington lived in an alternative and insulated world.

The last Census, in 2018, was a debacle. Photo: ODT files
The last Census, in 2018, was a debacle. Photo: ODT files

Supposedly, the Census would work almost completely online and with few collectors on the ground.

The officials and their political bosses failed both in the execution of the digital strategy and in their ignorance that the computer skills required were too much for many.

Five years later a digital divide remains, including for some older New Zealanders.

Paper-form proportions are rising from about 4% to 44%. Census staff numbers in the field have doubled.

The estimated cost this year of about $260 million is twice that of last time.

Questions will be translated into New Zealand Sign Language for the first time, Braille is again an option as is an audio format.

Census information is in 29 languages and the call centre is being set up with nine.

Work has been undertaken with iwi and on iwi-led data collection.

Most questions must be consistent so comparisons can be made across the decades.

Nonetheless, tweaking always takes place.

Notable in 2023 are new questions on gender, variations of sex characteristics and sexual identity information.

The Census is also asking more about disability and mental health.

With the money being thrown at the Census, there is little excuse for it not to work well.

It is compulsory to take part. Fines of $2000 are possible for failing to do so, not that that would be easy to establish and enforce except for the obviously belligerent.

Therein lies one fear — of misinformation and active opposition.

While individuals generally are more suspicious of government these days, most will do their duty and fill in the forms to the best of their ability for the sake of us all.

However, in this age of Covid and of distortion and misrepresentation, a core detests the Government, mainstream media and much of authority.

The parliamentary protests last year showed how deep this distrust is. Will these people refuse to take part or distort their answers? How big are these groups? How much misinformation about the Census will be spread around the internet?

The last Census was such a botch-up it could have undermined trust in the process.

That is one reason it is so important to complete an excellent job this time.

Although devastation from Cyclone Gabrielle will create various difficulties, a postponement was impractical.

Official Census day, March 7, is only two weeks away.

Advertising has begun and the first households have received their packs (by post or by hand from a Census collector).

Some homes will receive a letter with an online access code.

Selected dwellings will receive paper forms, and paper forms can be requested by others.

The back to basics of the paper option and the collectors on the streets are key changes which should make Census 2023 a vast improvement on 2018.