Counting census failures

Stats NZ wanted 70% of all Census forms filled in online, but anyone can ask for a paper form...
Stats NZ wanted 70% of all Census forms filled in online. Photo: ODT files
We were told how important the census is. The official count of New Zealand's population and dwellings is used by Government, iwi, business and community groups to make informed decisions. The census underlies accurate population estimates and projections and this underpins policy development, funding allocation and services and billions of dollars of Government spending.

What a disappointment, therefore, that this year's census fell short. Whatever way the result is spun, the fact is "interim calculations show that full or partial information for at least 90% of individuals was received". In other words, there is no information on up to one in 10 people, about 470,000 citizens.

This compared to 94.5% in 2013, a large fall and the worst response in more than 50 years.

The bureaucracy boffins decided this year on a "digital-first" approach. Fair enough. More and more of what most people do is online.

But the census debacle, and that is not too strong a word, was because not enough thought and strain was put into the need for also collecting information the traditional way. Door-knocking was only used for follow-up. And not enough effort was put into the details of organising what is a major undertaking.

Parts of New Zealand - often the poor, the elderly and the likes of Pasifika communities - will not have the wherewithal, or sometimes the motivation, to fill in forms via the internet. Without sufficient motivation or an appropriate push, it is also human nature to procrastinate or not be bothered. Ensuring comprehensive coverage is difficult, and census organisers in their digital enthusiasm have left too many New Zealanders uncounted.

Usually, the census creates plenty of interest because of the nature of the questions. A balance is needed between reflecting the modern world and continuity with data from the past.

But performance failures this year eclipsed any such debate. For a start, the internet-access codes - delivered the old-fashioned way by post - did not turn up for many households. This newspaper received reports from Cape Saunders to Tapanui of homes being missed. Dunback, it would appear, did not exist. Small settlements and rural areas were worst affected. There were also reports of people receiving the wrong codes.

In the face of low participation, the release of information has been delayed from October this year to March next year. In the meantime, Statistics New Zealand will be using "imputation" methods to replace missing information. In other words missing material is replaced by what is expected to be true information, notably from other sources.

The Government statistician has said Stats NZ realised it did not get everything right and "we built new systems and processes to run this census, and while the majority of New Zealanders were able to take part without a hitch, we know that some people did not have a good experience this year". So what if many of us found filling out the census online quick and easy? The census has to achieve comprehensive coverage above all else.

The experience of census field officers was telling. There were problems with households without letterboxes or the internet, and there were all sorts of operational muddles over coverage.

One report said field officers were not being given hard copies to help anyone. Instead, people waited on phones arranging for a hard copy to be delivered.

The 2011 census was delayed two years because of the Canterbury earthquakes. That was a shame because the consistent five-year pattern was disrupted. Never mind. That delay was necessary and this country had to make do.

New Zealand now has to make do under worse circumstances.

A much better performance, and thus better basic information about New Zealanders and their communities, must take place in 2023.


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