Census debacle claims Stats NZ’s head’s head

August 14, 2019

The Government Statistician and Chief Executive of Stats NZ, Liz MacPherson has resigned after the release of the report reviewing last year’s census debacle.

“As leader of this organisation, I take full responsibility for the shortfalls identified in the report,” said Ms MacPherson.

“We were too optimistic, placed too much emphasis on the online census, and did not have robust contingency plans in place for when things started to go wrong. When that happened, problems were not escalated to a higher level. We also failed our Treaty partners because we did not convert engagement with Māori into actual census responses.

“Put simply, we didn’t make it easy enough for everyone to take part and that will be a key focus for the next census.

“As the reviewers say, we got some things wrong at a time of great change during the switch to a more digitally-focused data collection approach. I accept the findings. We let ourselves and New Zealand down. . .

This is a commendable display of accountability.

Accepting responsibility is appropriate and appreciated by Taxpayers’ Union spokesman Louis Houlbrooke:

This is sad but the right thing to do in the circumstances. There has to be accountability in the public sector, especially in the case of a chief exec that earns over $400,000. Today we see an example of that.”

“Running a census every five years is Stats NZ’s largest responsibility. Taxpayers will expect the next chief exec to focus on this core service, which should mean directing resources away from the department’s more wishy-washy work like measuring ‘spiritual health’.”

There was little option by the head’s resignation when the report says:

. . .It is our view that weaknesses in overall governance and strategic leadership at the programme level led to a series of decisions, some influenced by the North Canterbury earthquake, that when taken together ultimately compromised the achievement of the investment objectives and several important key performance indicators. It is also our view that some elements of the programme design introduced unnecessary complexity that made it difficult to execute and for citizens to respond. . .

But shouldn’t the Stats Minister be accountable too?

Statistics Minister James Shaw needs to take responsibility for his part in the abysmal handling of the Census 2018 debacle, National’s Statistics spokesperson Dr Jian Yang says.

“The resignation of Chief Statistician Liz MacPherson is appropriate given how badly Census 2018 was botched. But she should not be a scapegoat for James Shaw whose failure to show leadership played a significant part in this mess.

“The Minister needed to be more involved in his department. He should have asked more questions of his Statistics NZ leadership team and demanded better results from them.

“But he chose to be a hands-off Minister instead. He was missing in action when things were going wrong – off on a Pacific Island junket while his officials were left to clean things up.

“He let things spiral out of control to the point where much of the data may no longer be useful. That creates enormous problems for the billions of dollars in funding for health, education, police and other vital services that depend on reliable Census numbers.

“This failure also has massive implications for the next election with reliable data required to draw accurate electoral boundaries and decide the number of seats in Parliament.

“James Shaw was too relaxed about the problem. He brushed off any criticism as ‘scaremongering’, but today’s damning report shows there were very real issues he wasn’t across.”

When a department is carrying out its major undertaking, and doing it differently, the Minister ought to take a much closer interest than he appeared to have done.

It would also have been better had Stats NZ taken a more cautious approach to expecting people to respond on-line.

We were in the area chosen for a trial of the on-line census in 2013.

Officially it went well but locals involved told me there were big holes, not least in central Oamaru where most of the large Tongan population went uncounted.

There ought to have been enough warning signs from that to have a lot more staff on the ground with paper forms and to ensure that at the very least households which didn’t return forms received personal visits.

Not everyone has access to a computer; some people who do, use them for little more than emails; others are loathe to use them for anything involving personal data.

The first nation-wide  on-line census would have been better had people been given a choice between filling in paper forms or doing it on-line.

It wasn’t and so we’ve got huge holes in information and more than a year’s delay in the first release of data which includes the population numbers required for the updating of electoral boundaries.

That means that parties either wait to do candidate selection or risk having to re-do some close to the election when, as inevitable, at least one new electorate is created and others undergo major boundary changes.

Worse still, funding for health, education and social services are being compromised with no reliable population data.

This has been a very sorry saga the only good from which will be if lessons learned bring changes that ensure the next census results in a much better response rate and better data sooner.


They’ll know where we are

June 19, 2019

Stats NZ  is going to be working with phone companies to track our movements every hour:

The population density programme will launch next month and Statistics Minister James Shaw said he was aware there would be perception issues around every step being recorded.

Mr Shaw said cellphone companies and credit companies already held that level of detail, but for the first time Stats NZ was able to act as a data broker to identify trends and patterns with the anonymised information.

I find this a wee bit creepy.

Phone and credit card companies aren’t the government and we have a choice about whether or not we use them.

He told MPs at a select committee today, there would be concerns about people being able to hack into the system and get hold of people’s private details.

“It is very rigourous and we’ve had criticism in the past of people saying it’s really difficult to get access to that information to be able to use it for research purposes – well that’s because it’s under lock and key,” he told RNZ following the committee.

It was supposedly difficult to get Budget information last month.

However, Mr Shaw said the security of the information would require increasing attention over time.

The programme has been assessed by the Privacy Commissioner and a data ethics panel is being set up to keep watch.

Mr Shaw said the Census already asked New Zealanders where they were on a particular night and the tracking just an extension of that using information that was already collected.

I don’t go anywhere that would cause me any concern should the government know about it, but that’s not the point.

Filling in a census form once every six years is very different from tracking our movements every hour.

We’re required to fill in the forms, but are phone companies required to give this information and whether or not they are, shouldn’t they be telling us what they’re doing with any information they hold on us.

Are they going to ask us for our permission to share our information and can we say no?

 

 

 


What’s she hiding?

April 9, 2019

Government Statistician Liz MacPherson is facing a contempt of parliament charge after refusing a select committee request for information on last year’s census:

In an unusual move, a select committee invoked a standing order compelling Statistics NZ chief executive to produce the number of partial responses were received in Census 2018.

This is not a partisan request, the whole committee is seeking an answer.

National state services spokesman Dr Nick Smith said the committee unanimously decided such an extraordinary measure was required after MacPherson again refused to answer on the basis it would require “extensive contextual information”. 

“It is the first time ever that I have seen a select committee having to use its powers to require a public servant to provide an answer to a basic question.

“I can only draw the conclusion that Stats NZ has something to hide.”

This is public information. The refusal to supply it begs the question: what is she trying to hide and why?

Last year’s census was a shambles and the failure to provide parliament with the information requested does nothing to improve confidence in it.

 


Poverty stats government’s shame

April 3, 2019

The nine child poverty statistics that will be used as the baseline for improvement show released yesterday by Stats NZ show all but one have got worse under the current government:

David Farrar compares the stats under National and Labour:

  1. Percentage of children in households with income under 50% of median, before housing costs. 156,000 in June 2008 and 156,000 in June 2017 so no increase under National (rate dropped 0.3%). In June 2018 increased by 27,000 and rate increased 2.3% for Labour’s first year.
  2. Percentage of children in households with income under 50% of median, after housing costs. 329,000 in June 2009 (no data for 2008) and 247,000 in June 2017 so a drop of 82,000 under National (rate dropped 8.1%). In June 2018 increased by 7,000 and rate increased 0.4% for Labour’s first year.
  3. Percentage of children in households in material hardship. 196,000 in June 2013 (no data before that) and 140,000 in June 2017 so dropped 56,000 under National (rate dropped 5.4%). In June 2018 increased by 8,000 and rate increased 0.6% for Labour’s first year.
  4. Percentage of children in households with income under 60% of median, before housing costs. 252,000 in June 2008 and 243,000 in June 2017 so a drop of 9,000 under National (rate dropped 1.3%). In June 2018 increased by 38,000 and rate increased 3.2% for Labour’s first year.
  5. Percentage of children in households with income under 60% of median, after housing costs. 355,000 in June 2008 and 314,000 in June 2017 so a drop of 41,000 under National (rate dropped 4.6%). In June 2018 increased by 27,000 and rate increased 2.2% for Labour’s first year.
  6. Percentage of children in households with income under 50% housing costs for the base financial year. 258,000 in June 2008 and 236,000 in June 2017 so a drop of 22,000 under National (rate dropped 2.5%). In June 2018 increased by 18,000 and rate increased 1.4% for Labour’s first year.
  7. Percentage of children in households with income under 40% housing costs for the base financial year. 156,000 in June 2008 and 178,000 in June 2017 so an increase of 22,000 under National (rate increased 1.6%). In June 2018 dropped by 4,000 and rate dropped 0.4% for Labour’s first year.
  8. Percentage of children in households in severe material hardship. 84,000 in June 2013 (no data before that) and 74,000 in June 2017 so dropped 10,000 under National (rate dropped 1.0%). In June 2018 dropped by 9,000 and rate dropped 0.9% for Labour’s first year.
  9. Percentage of children in households in material hardship and under 60% median income after housing costs. 96,000 in June 2013 (no data before that) and 86,000 in June 2017 so dropped 10,000 under National (rate dropped 1.1%). In June 2018 increased by 12,000 and rate increased 1.0% for Labour’s first year. . .

Who would have thought it? Seven of the child poverty measures dropped under National, one was static and one went up.

And under the Labour/NZ First/Green government that purports to be compassionate and set reducing child poverty as a priority?

Seven of the child poverty measures worsened and only two improved.

What’s behind the difference?

Former Prime Minister and Finance Minister Bill English was determined to search out the risk factors which lead to poverty and the disastrous social outcomes that usually accompany it.

Having found them he used the social investment approach – spending more upfront on helping those most at risk. The higher short-term cost was justified by the expected reduction in the long-term human, social and financial costs should those at risk not be helped.

The compassionate and intelligent response of the Labour/NZ First/Green government would have been to continue and build on what was working.

The failure to do so is this government’s shame.

Instead it sabotaged business confidence, wasted money on policies including fee-free tertiary education and winter heating subsidies for people who don’t need them, and got soft on policies that used both carrot and stick for those who could be working but don’t.

Early days is no excuse, this government is almost half way through it’s first term.

It can’t blame National for what’s going wrong when under it, seven of the measures were improving, one was static and just one was going the wrong way.

The government has only itself and its ideological blindness to blame which will be no comfort at all to the families whose situation has worsened.

Lindsay Mitchell blogs on the causes of poverty:

The Canadian think-tank, the Fraser Institute has just released a paper which suggests an elegantly simple framework in finding three causes of poverty: bad luck, bad choices and enablement. The first two need no explanation. The third is described thus:

We can say that poverty is “enabled” when systems and structures are in place to discourage the kinds of efforts that people would normally make to avoid poverty, i.e., find employment, find a partner (especially if children are present), improve one’s education and skill set, have a positive outlook, and take personal responsibility for your own actions. Ironically, it is government programs (welfare, in particular) that are intended to help the poor but end up actually enabling poverty.

In NZ, many of our current influencers (MPs and media) pooh,pooh the idea that bad choices are responsible for poverty despite this being self-evident. They base their disdain for the idea on a belief that greater systems, for example institutional racism, drive bad choices. Of course when they do this they excuse bad choices and even compensate the person making them. Undoubtedly, most of those sitting on the Welfare Expert Advisory Group would hold views of his nature. . . 

The soft bigotry of low expectations is not a cliche, it’s a fact.

This government’s low expectations are enabling poverty and turning around the improvements that National’s policy of social investment were making.


10% can’t be counted

July 17, 2018

The release of data from this year’s census has been delayed because not enough people participated in it:

Stats NZ has revised the date for first release of census information from October 2018 to March 2019.

We will confirm the exact response and the coverage rates for the census after we complete our reconciliation processes. Stats NZ’s interim calculations show that full or partial information for at least 90 percent of individuals was received, compared with 94.5 percent for the 2013 Census.

As with previous censuses, we will use statistical methodology to compensate for missing data. For the 2018 Census we are revising this methodology because of the lower-than-expected response. We are discussing this new methodology with our technical customers. We’re also undertaking analysis on how to improve data for small populations, subgroups, and small geographies. The new date for our first release will give us time to develop revised methodology for processing and analysing census data. We are committed to delivering a high-quality and accurate dataset.

There is a long term, international trend of declining census response rates. Because of this we have made a strategic decision to use more administrative data to improve the quality of census data.

Stats NZ is in a good position to adopt this approach as we have been investigating future census models that would supplement census data with administrative data.

How significant is the drop?

Over at Kiwiblog David Farrar says:

. . .The Minister of Statistics should call for an independent review of this failure, to ensure the next census has a much higher participation rate.

Also we should not be given spin for months about how great the census went and then find out only now, how bad the participation rate was.

The last Australian census had a 96% response rate. They regarded 93.3% as the minimum required.

The Canadian census had a 98.4% response rate.

A better way to look at it is the non response rate. In Canada is was 1.6% and in NZ it was 10% – six times higher.

The move to on-line forms was supposed to make it easier to complete the census.

We won’t know if completion would have been worse if Stats NZ had stuck to the paper-based system but there were lots of complaints from people about the difficulty of dealing with the call centre by those requesting paper forms.

We were in Queenstown on census night. Nothing was said at the hotel when we checked in but there were papers under the door when we left at 6:30 next morning. I picked them up, stuffed them in my bag and forgot about them until I got home when I found forms at the door.

We had breakfast with around 50 farmers from Australia and New Zealand so I did a census on census completion and asked everyone if they’d done it.

One of the hotels had run out of forms, none of the Australians had completed them and all of the New Zealanders had done theirs at home, as if they were at home.

A woman who gave forms to tourists staying at her B&B was told where she could put them.

A friend has a holiday home in Wanaka with two houses and one mail box. She presumes her tenant would have got the letter fromStats NZ that went to every household, but would have filled it in for only one of the houses.

Anecdotes don’t make good data but they do illustrate problems with this year’s census.

With the old system someone visited every house and some census staff went many extra miles. A friend was climbing in the Southern Alps on census night and was presented with forms by a worker who came to the hut.

The on-line census was easy if you have a computer and are comfortable using it but that’s not everybody and problems with the call centre didn’t help.

It would have been more expensive to have people calling on every house as they used to do, but it would have ensured a better count which is important for planning and funding.

It’s also necessary for working out electorate boundaries and the delay in the data release will delay the final release of new boundaries which in turn will delay the candidate selection process.

As National’s Statistics spokesman Nick Smith points out:

. . .There is over $10 billion of health funding allocated to the twenty DHBs each year based on census population data. The funding formula for the operating grants for our 2500 schools is derived from the census as are decisions about the allocation of resources in social services, police, sports, transport and many other services.

“It also has major implications for the Representation Commission. The number of general and Maori electorates in Parliament are determined by the Census and the process for determining the new boundaries was due to start in November.

“Changes in population figures as small as 1 per cent can impact on whether there is, for instance, an extra or the removal of one of the Maori electorates. This process will now not be able to start until April next year and the compromised statistics will affect the integrity of the make-up and boundaries for the 2020 and 2023 elections. . . 

The significant drop in completion rates and consequent delay in releasing data are concerning.

Having 10% of the population not counted is serious, especially when it is likely to include more people who for example have intellectual or mental disabilities, don’t speak English, are illiterate or for other reasons are more likely to be in need of publicly funded support.

A review must determine what went wrong and why, and ensure that it doesn’t happen again in 2024.


Pākehā not broad enough

March 7, 2018

Another complaint about this year’s census is the stir over the options for ethnicity:

An Auckland man is pushing for the term Pākehā to be included as an ethnicity option in the census form.

Piha resident Peter Hosking was part of a Call me Pākehā online campaign, calling for the return of the term Pākehā in the census.

It was last featured in the 1996 census when it was bracketed next to New Zealand European, but was removed from the next census. . .

I don’t have a problem with calling myself a Pākehā but I won’t accept the ethnic category European New Zealander.

Ethnicity has several definitions including the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like; shared cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that set apart one group of people from another.

By none of those definitions would I claim to be European which is defined as relating to or characteristic of Europe or its inhabitants.

It can also be someone of European descent and that could indicate the colour of my skin but it doesn’t apply to a common national or cultural tradition to which I have any connection.

All of the antecedents I can trace were Scottish or New Zealanders of Scottish descent. All those born there all either died, or left, Scotland long before it became part of the European Union. I am sure none of them would claim European ethnicity.

It is possible that many centuries ago the ancestors of those ancestors I know about came from a European country, but Europe is a group of  different countries with different languages and cultures and I doubt if anyone from any of those many and varied countries would put European as their ethnicity.

Why then is is applied to people on the other side of the world, almost as far away as it’s possible to get from the European continent?

To add to the absurdity in the other category on the census form, Dutch is given as an example of ethnicity. If people from the Netherlands are Dutch rather than European surely New Zealanders should be New Zealanders rather than European.

That takes me back to Pākehā. While I don’t mind being classified as one, if I understand its meaning correctly I couldn’t categorise myself as one if my ancestors weren’t Scottish but were, for example Indian, Japanese, Iranian or Kenyan.

Or what if I was of Maori descent? The census allows you to tick more than one ethnicity box but would anyone who ticks Maori also tick Pākehā which can mean foreigner or not Maori?

We might well have lots of these people who consider themselves to be of New Zealand ethnicity but wouldn’t be comfortable claiming to be Pākehā.

If we were in Australia those of us who shared the cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that set us apart as New Zealanders could tick New Zealander as our ethnicity.

It is high time we could do it at home.


Census complaints continue

March 6, 2018

It’s census day and everyone is required by law to complete the forms.

As I posted a few days ago, the Waitaki District was used to trial online forms five years ago and the trial was declared a success.

As a result this year instead of hand-delivered paper forms, a letter is supposed to come in the mail giving instructions for how to complete the census online. Those who can’t or don’t want to do that can phone an 0800 census (236787) to request paper forms.

So far so easy, but Facebook, talkback radio and other media are full of complaints about the help line.

I can add an anecdote to that:

A friend called the number, waited a long time and when the call was finally answered found someone with a strong accent at the other line which resulted in difficulties at both ends.

At one stage the man who answered the phone told the called to press the hash key. The caller replied, “The only hash I know is a hash brown”.

It was a witty response but he wasn’t joking. He has never owned a computer or mobile phone and genuinely doesn’t know what a hash key is.

Things got a bit testy after that and he’s not sure if he’s going to get a form in the mail or not. It hadn’t arrived by yesterday and he won’t get mail again until tomorrow.

At least he got the letter with an access code, not everyone has.

Our sharemilker hadn’t got a letter by yesterday morning. His mail box is in a line with ours and ours came last week.

All the mail boxes have our RAPID number but ours is the only house at that address, some of the others are further up the road and one is on another road. I wonder if Statistics NZ understands that a RAPID number on a postal address isn’t necessarily where the people who get the mail live?

I took the electronic option offered last time and didn’t have a problem doing it again this time until I went to fill in a form for our crib.

I don’t remember getting a form there five years ago and as we don’t have a mail box wasn’t expecting one this year. However, when we got there yesterday there was an envelope with census instructions stuck in the door.

I followed the instructions to sign in with the access number then struck a problem. The first task was to fill in the name or names of everyone who’d be there tonight.

We were there last night but won’t be there tonight and there was no option for nobody. I clicked continue and got a response telling me I had to fill in the names. I put nobody nobody and carried on to the questions on the dwelling.

When that was done I got a message saying the process wasn’t complete and everyone present tonight had to fill in a form.

I went back to the form for people and noticed a box which said resident, visitor or away. I clicked on away and got a message saying the form was complete.

What will happen when whoever processes the form gets to nobody nobody?

Why didn’t they ask how often people were in the house? If they’re planning for health and infrastructure the answer to that matters.

We can’t be the only ones with a crib that won’t be occupied tonight and is only used temporarily.

There will be other houses which don’t have permanent residents – we have a friend who lives part time on a farm in Southland, and part time in Queenstown – and also homes whose residents are away tonight.

Why didn’t whoever designed the form think of this and enable people to put not a permanent resident and usually resident but not at home on census night?

If talkback radio is to be believed, forms can be completed until the end of the month. After that someone will visit every dwelling for which forms haven’t been returned.

That might mop up many of those who wouldn’t or couldn’t fill forms in online and didn’t get paper ones.

But it would have been much better to have introduced the online option as they did for the trail in Waitaki last year, by visiting every dwelling and offering paper forms to those who preferred them and leaving the online forms as an opt-in for those who chose it.

This might be the 21st century but there are still a lot of people who either don’t have computers or have them but are concerned about trusting them with their data.

Central and local governments use information gathered from the census for planning and funding. It’s important that the information is both complete and accurate.

Making online forms the preferred option will be cheaper but its false economy if the data gathered is compromised by fewer people completing their forms, or as in the case with our crib, not being able to do so accurately.

 

 


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