When it all goes horribly wrong

The 2018 census was a fizzer. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
The 2018 census was a fizzer. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Are they male, female or non-binary?

Are they married, in a relationship or single? And do they have children?

Where do they live? How long have they lived there? Do they own the dwelling, or rent? Does the house have more than two bedrooms? What type of heating?

Where were they born? Which ethnic affiliation do they maintain? Which languages do they speak? Do they adhere to a religion?

What did they study? In what field do they work? For how many hours each week? Do they own a business? What other forms of income do they have? How do they travel? How many motor vehicles do they own?

So many questions - and so many New Zealanders who have not provided the answers.

The announcement last week that no fewer than 700,000 people had either not participated in or not completed the 2018 census confirms it as a failure of epic proportions.

Long delays in the release of information rang alarm bells, but that one in seven New Zealanders have not had their information recorded is truly disheartening.

March 6 last year was supposed to herald a bright new start to the gathering of vital information about this country.

Gone was the old way - the supposedly inefficient process of knocking on doors and handling paper forms - and in was the new, the move to a digital-first approach with the use of a pen seen as very much a secondary option.

Stats NZ certainly meant well. Going online has its benefits, both economic and practical, and many people doubtless found completing the census on their computers or mobile devices a doddle.

Sadly, those who feared an all-in approach to digital, without some sort of trial, was fraught with danger were right.

In very broad terms, for every six people who had no problem filling out the census online, one failed. A digital-first approach proved nowhere near as effective as the old method.

"Access codes", general online processes, having to phone to request a paper copy of the form - these were clearly all barriers to lots of people, perhaps affecting the older population, Maori and minorities the most.

This matters because it means the census is going to deliver skewed and incomplete results. The census, held every five years, provides vital information - a snapshot of the nation - that is used primarily for allocating funding for core services, for future planning, for the drawing of electoral boundaries, for so many things. It must be done, and it must be done right.

More information has been promised from Stats NZ, but it seems the only option is to try again, possibly as soon as 2021, to avoid a clash with the election.

Online might be the future for the census, and there seems little point in a return to a paper-only process, but we must be better prepared for the next time we take the pulse of the nation.

Comments

I think some of the most important points of the census issue have been missed by the ODT editorial.

1/ Statistics asked the government (the previous one) for a contingency fund to cover the work needed to get to all those people who didn't fill in the census online. They were given millions of dollars less than what they needed to do the follow up work.

2/ There were more problems than previous years, as to be expected going to a new system, while also running a second system. However in previous years, the media didn't publicise every problem they could find, to the point where some of the public because anti-census - which made issues worse, not better. The media hype got to the point where instead of going to Stats NZ to sort a problem, some people went straight to the media.

3/ Stats NZ were hoping 60% would fill in the census online, but exceeded that with 83%. However of the 765,000 censuses posted, only 15,000 were initially returned, and 750,000 needed follow up. That's just a 2% initial return!

4/ Many first world countries who haven't done a census in 30 years, or only do them every decade, or do a census of just 5% of the people and extrapolate the results.

Since the census is compulsory, it can only be properly carried out by enumerators, door to door.

 

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