Following minimal-change censuses in 2006 and 2013, Statistics New Zealand embarked on a significant change journey with the 2018 Census. The design principles for the 2018 Census were feasible and were influenced by a successful methodology adopted internationally, particularly in Australia and Canada, beginning in the mid-2000s. The changes in approach were necessary to combat the increased costs of conducting a traditional census, and in response to pressure to remain relevant as well as improve the quality and timeliness of census outputs. The growing reluctance of citizens to participate was evident in declining response rates over time, while the availability and sharing of administrative data across government were ever-increasing.
For the 2018 Census, Statistics NZ’s key investment objectives were:
- To undertake a Census of Population and Dwellings in 2018 that meets statutory requirements;
- To at least maintain the quality of census information compared with the 2013 Census;
- To improve, by 20%, the timeliness of census information products released to users following a 2018 Census compared to that released following the 2013 Census; and
- To reduce, over two full census cycles, the average cost of the census by 5.0%, starting in 2014 and using the 2013 Census adjusted for annual inflation at 2.0%.
To achieve these objectives, the 2018 programme introduced a new suite of interdependent IT systems. These systems were designed to support a redesigned process aimed at improving quality and efficiency using administrative data to support collection and processing operations. Supported by a much smaller field workforce, the new model relied on respondents understanding their role in completing the census questionnaires (both dwelling and individual), preferably online and without the assistance of a census worker. To ensure these changes were understood by citizens, Statistics NZ deployed a modern communications and marketing campaign with special engagement strategies developed to support the parts of the population who are traditionally low census responders. To improve the quality of the census, it was understood that increased participation and better response rates for these special populations were important, with particular focus on Māori, Pasifika, homeless, and youth populations.
The 2018 Census was a large, complex operation that introduced unprecedented change and experienced significant challenges. Despite the fact that not all investment objectives were met, the programme did deliver important elements that can and should be used as building blocks for future censuses. We conclude that the project has not met all of its expectations and the delay in producing results and limited communication with users has led to stakeholder frustration and an erosion of trust, as evidenced by numerous public comments.
To reduce the frustration and rebuild this trust, the organisation should communicate clearly the measures it has taken to ensure quality in census data as well as its limitations, and share improvements it will adopt in future to restore the quality and timeliness of census outputs.