I am not surprised that the 2018 census got the lowest level of participation in more than 50 years. I received a wave of complaints from retirement villages that got only one census pack for over one hundred households, isolated rural communities who were just forgotten, people with disabilities who felt that they did not count, and student hostels that were ignored.
The Government admitted this week that over 400,000 people were not counted. It has announced that the results are to be delayed from October to next March so as to enable officials to backfill the massive hole with computer modelling and re-using the information from 2013 census returns. Professor of Statistics from Auckland University, Thomas Lumley, has described the low return as ‘very serious’.
The implications of late and unreliable statistics are huge, particularly when New Zealand’s population is growing so quickly. You cannot blame a lack of funds. The budget for Census 2018 was $119 million, up from $90 million in 2013.
The fault for this mess lies primarily with Statistics New Zealand. They got so carried away with their digital strategy that they forgot about the people factor. The success of previous census was in the thousands of neighbourhood coordinators who knew their communities and got everybody participating. Even in the wake of this debacle, they were congratulating themselves on how many people had completed the census online as though this was an end in itself.
Statistics Minister and Green Co-leader James Shaw must also take some responsibility. Statistics is not a big portfolio and for the one week in five years of the census he needed to be on the job. He chose to be touring Pacific Islands at this crucial time with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. This was like Health Minister David Clark being overseas on holiday last week during the first national strike by nurses in 30 years.
Minister Shaw was also way too dismissive of the concerns of the public, media and MPs like myself who raised concerns back in March. We may have felt previous Statistics Minister Maurice Williamson was hyperactive in 2013 in cajoling New Zealanders to participate in the last census, but Minister Shaw has been missing in action.
There is a broader lesson from the Census 2018 shambles for Government and business around digital technologies. We have had previous failures like the Novopay debacle with Education and INCIS with Police. To err is human, but to really stuff things up takes a computer. A common problem is technology nerds forgetting the human dimension. If Government is to make greater use of digital technology for public services, more needs to be invested in organisations like SeniorNet and support for people with disabilities and those in rural areas. Everyone should count.