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Political Roundup: Census debacle erodes trust in government decisions

by Dr Bryce Edwards

Dr Bryce Edwards.

New Zealanders should have less faith in many of the vital decisions of government agencies, due to serious problems with the way last year’s census was carried out. It’s a multi-billion-dollar problem. And the Government and officials appear to be doing little to assuage concerns. In fact, the recent decisions of the Minister of Statistics and Statistics New Zealand are giving the public more reason to be suspicious.

I covered this a month ago, on the anniversary of the 2018 census, pointing out the many problems – see: The absolute debacle of the 2018 Census. The “digital first” experiment had gone horribly wrong, leading to a suspicion at the time that about one-in-ten citizens hadn’t completed the census – something that would lead to all sorts of problems for government decision-making. Since then, the full extent of the debacle has become clearer, but accountability has not.

Most significantly, despite Statistics NZ’s reluctance to let the public know, it’s now clear that there was also a problem with those who did fill out the census forms – about 240,000 never finished filling in the forms. This is on top of the 480,000 who didn’t even start filling them in.

Yesterday’s Otago Daily Times editorial quite rightly labels the most recent census a “a failure of epic proportions”, saying that “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” – see: When it all goes horribly wrong.

The editorial explains why it’s such a problem: “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.”

There are billions of dollars at stake, because so much of what the government spends is affected by the detailed knowledge of New Zealand society that the census produces. Financial journalist David Hargreaves explains this in his column, Maybe we should scrap the 2018 census and start again.

Here are his examples: “In the case of migration, obviously if thousands less people have come into particularly Auckland this has big ramifications for housing and infrastructure. Having pristine statistics is not some ‘nice to have’ fanciful thing. It’s actually absolutely vital and therefore should not be subjected to Government penny-pinching”.

Although Statistics NZ is currently attempting to “backfill” the gaps in the census data with a “patching” process that uses other government agency statistics, there doesn’t seem to be much confidence amongst commentators that this will be adequate.

Hargreaves discusses this: “however well they do in patching this up, there will, always be a suspicion over the information and whether it is of the quality on which big spending Government decisions on things like infrastructure can be confidently committed. Where we want information as gold, we might end up with copper. Which ain’t good enough. Anything where information has to be extrapolated, say from a sample size, is always subject to some question marks.”

Similarly, Massey University’s pro vice-chancellor Paul Spoonley is unconvinced that the patching process will work, saying “I’m still very, very sceptical” – see 1News’ Massey University official calls on Stats NZ head to ‘front’ on ‘failed’ 2018 Census.

According to this report, Spoonley believes it still “leaves the serious question of whether New Zealand can have confidence that the replacement data will be correct”. Spoonley says, in terms of government decision-making, “a whole lot of systems are actually breaking down because we don’t have Census data available”.

For the best discussion of the quality of the data, see David Williams’ Census ‘disastrous’, but not useless. Of particular interest in this article, is the evaluation of Richard Arnold, a former Statistics NZ analyst and now a statistics lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. He says the latest census is “absolutely not up to spec”.

Arnold explains the importance of a full national census over simple sample surveys, saying a census “gets in everywhere” in terms of the smaller demographic groups. And because only about six out of seven citizens have been properly recorded in the census, all sorts of minority groups will have a reduced profile in the snapshot of the nation.

He says: “It’s interesting to see how they are growing and changing over time. There’ll be people from minority religions who want to see how many they are and how they’re changing. There are little groups everywhere. Even regional areas, where people want to know how the rural population is changing.”

There will now be significant errors and bias in the information the government is relying upon. Whereas very small amounts of missing information can be patched up, in this case Arnold suspects “when it gets out to this kind of level, it’s a really big problem” and “You just don’t know because you haven’t measured”.

Similarly, economist Brian Easton lacks confidence in the ability of Statistics NZ to patch up the problems, especially given what he’s learnt about the process: “We have been told that the patching will not all cover all questions which researchers use, while the patching is likely to invalidate many of the issues which researchers want to explore” – see Thomas Manch’s One in seven failed to complete Census 2018, a back down from Govt Statistician reveals.

According to this article, “Easton said the gap in census response was now so large the data may be useless for research.” National’s state services spokesman Nick Smith says the problems with the census data “will create problems for years in allocating tens of billions of dollars in funding”. While New Zealand’s chief statistician Liz MacPherson is reported complaining that “misunderstandings have resulted in unfounded comments regarding the integrity of the official statistics system and Stats NZ.”

MacPherson has been in the firing line for her role overseeing the whole post-census debacle. And she’s come under even more scrutiny recently due to her extreme attempts to withhold information from the public and politicians about the unusually high number of people who only partially completed their census forms. This is best covered in Thomas Manch’s article, Chief Statistician ordered by MPs to produce information on Census 2018.

As head of Stats NZ, MacPherson has had to appear twice this year at a select committee, where both times she has declined to provide details on the census completion rates, stating last week “Without the appropriate context, these individual numbers would be open to misinterpretation”. Commenting on this, constitutional expert Andrew Geddis says “I can’t remember a time a public servant has refused after being told they must answer”.

MacPherson eventually yielded, after the select committee MPs unanimously decided to threaten her with contempt of Parliament. But the episode was enough for blogger No Right Turn to call for her to be sacked, saying her disobedience was an alarming defiance of the public’s democratic rights and of accountability – see: This is not how our public service should work.

According to Friday’s Press editorial, the whole episode needs more investigation: “Statistics Minister James Shaw’s claims that the gaps in the data are not a concern, and a chief statistician who was almost dragged kicking and screaming by politicians to present a fuller picture of a shambolic process and a poor result, are both worthy of greater scrutiny” – see: NZ census: A black hole of big data.

The editorial joins a host of commentators and experts who are calling on the Government to fix the problems of last year’s census debacle by bringing forward a new census for 2021 – something that James Shaw will not countenance.

And the blame game will continue – with arguments about whether the census debacle was due to initial decisions made by the last National Government, or mismanagement under the Labour-led administration. But regardless, Oscar Kightley wrote on Sunday, it’s Shaw’s “job to fix it, and he could start by admitting that this is an embarrassing disaster that could have serious consequences for the country” – see: Why the census debacle is so serious.

There will also be consequences for some of the 700,000+ who failed to start or finish completing the census last year. Jono Galuszka reports that, so far, “60 court cases were being lodged in relation to people not completing the census” – see: Stats NZ starts taking people to court over non-completed census forms. But not everyone is being prosecuted: “Criteria for prosecution included actively refusing to do the census, being strongly negative, or being abusive towards census staff”.

Finally, although many are calling for a return to a paper-based census process, is it actually time to further embrace digital data? In the age of “big data” there are a huge number of other possibilities for innovation in terms of measuring and understanding what’s going on in New Zealand. With the use of greater technology, government policy making could actually become much more reliable and effective according to Pattrick Smellie, who asks: In a world full of big data, is it time to rethink the Census altogether?