What’s she hiding?


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.


10% can’t be counted


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.

Census complaints continue


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.



Get job title right on census


DairyNZ points out the importance of getting job titles right on the census:

The census is our best opportunity to find out exactly how many people are working on dairy farms and in what roles. This is critical information that DairyNZ and government need so we can work together on things such as immigration policy, industry training, and ensuring we have capable people in the pipeline to do the work you need doing on your farm.

When you are filling in your census form on or before the 6th March PLEASE use one of the following job roles, and encourage your employees to do the same. Use the one that is the closest fit to the role you actually do. It will make a difference to us effectively working on your behalf. The job roles are:

  • Dairy Farm Assistant
  • Dairy Farm Herd Manager
  • Dairy Farm Assistant Manager
  • Dairy Farm Manager
  • Dairy Farm Owner
  • Sharemilker
  • Contract Milker
  • Relief Milker
  • Dairy Cattle Grazier

Census coverage more important than cost


The Waitaki District was used as a trial for the online collection of data for the census in 2013.

Everyone got a visit from someone who delivered the papers and explained there was choice of filling in the paper form or doing it online.

The trial was declared a success and this year the on-line census is being done nation-wide.

But unlike the trial in Waitaki, people will have to opt-out of the online  option if they can’t or don’t want to do it that way.

Instead of someone calling with forms, everyone will get a letter explaining how to fill the census in online and what to do if they’d rather have a paper form to fill in.

That sounds easy enough but the ODT reported on concerns for elderly, those with poor sight and others who don’t have computers.

These concerns have been echoed on Facebook where people are complaining about the difficulties faced by elderly relatives who rang the 0800 number to request forms.

There’s also concerns about people who can’t read and write.

The slowness of the postal system is another problem.

Mail is delivered only three days a week, if people didn’t get a form by yesterday, it will be tomorrow before one arrives. Even if they phone for a paper form straight away it could well be next Tuesday, census day, or later before the form arrives.

Completing the census is a legal requirement. It’s important that everyone is counted or districts will get less funding for health, education and other services and infrastructure which are allocated on a population basis.

The 2013 census showed only a tiny increase in the Waitaki District’s population.

That is difficult to understand when irrigation has created so many jobs on farms and in businesses which supply and service them.

There were 4 houses on our farm and our two immediate neighbours’ before irrigation, now there are 15. We’re the oldest in any of those houses by more than 15 years.

Most of the occupants are in their 20s and 30s and many have young families. This pattern has been repeated all around the district.

Irrigation hasn’t just created jobs on farms there are more in businesses which service and supply them and most of the people in those jobs live in the district.

Intensification hasn’t just happened on farms, there’s been a growth in lifestyle blocks too. There’s also a lot of new building in town and there     aren’t a large number of unoccupied houses.

Why weren’t these signs of population growth reflected in the census?

Could it be that a lot of people didn’t bother to fill in their forms, whether on paper or online five years ago?

With no one visiting each house as they used to do, it will be far easier for those who don’t want to fill in a form to ignore it, and far more difficult for those who would but can’t without help, to do so.

It will be much cheaper if more people do their census on-line but coverage is much more important than cost.

The on-line option should be the opt-in one rather than the paper one.

Have your say on census 2018


Statistics New Zealand is consulting on the next census which will take place in 2018.

Statistics NZ wants to hear your views about the next census and is inviting you to take part in an online discussion forum open from 30 April to 10 June 2015 via www.statistics.govt.nz

This is the first time Statistics NZ has engaged online with the public about the content of census, and it is an important step in ensuring the 2018 Census is relevant for New Zealand.

Statistics NZ has developed a ‘Preliminary view’ of content for the 2018 Census based on its review process to date. The online forum will be structured around these topics, with current thinking – including proposed changes – a starting point for discussion.

Statistics NZ is encouraging people to respond to its initial recommendations, share their views and discuss issues that matter to them with other Kiwis.

The best opportunity to influence census content is to make a formal submission, via www.statistics.govt.nz. The formal submission period will be open from 18 May until 30 June.

Statistics NZ welcomes all engagement and will listen carefully to everyone’s views, but will need to find the right balance between making changes to better reflect New Zealand today and being able compare data over time. Factors such as the length and complexity of the questionnaire will also need to be considered.

Following consultation, Statistics NZ will analyse the submissions and aim to confirm final content for the 2018 Census in early 2017. . .

You’ll find a link to the discussion forum here.

I want the census to recognise New Zealander as an ethnicity instead of just allowing people to choose it under other.

If you’re in Australia you can be a New Zealander but it’s not a distinct category in the New Zealand census.

People who are European can choose distinctive ethnicities such as Dutch. But those of us of non-Maori descent are supposed to choose the broad and inaccurate category European while people of other descent such as Asian or African aren’t recognised as New Zealanders even if their families have been here for generations unless we opt for the after-thought category of other.

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