3% of households missed out on census code

Tens of thousands of Kiwi households might not have received a code or paper form by census night. David Williams reports.

StatsNZ is trying to backtrack from its own statement made on the eve of census day.

In a late-night email exchange on March 5, Newsroom asked census senior manager of communications, marketing and engagement Richard Stokes if every single household would get a census code by midnight the following day.

He replied: Yes, they will all get a code.”

Online forms are particularly important for this year’s $121-million survey, as it’s New Zealand’s first 'digital-first' census, with a goal of getting 70 percent of responses online.

But as March 6 neared, media reports emerged of potential problems with the census. Particularly prominent were hostel owners and retirement village operators, who worried they wouldn’t have enough codes for all of their occupants. Postal deliveries to some rural areas were delayed.

By March 5, 96 percent of New Zealand households had received a code or paper form. Stokes confirms that figure only improved to 97 percent by midnight on census night.

“The areas where we hadn’t completed delivery were Takaka / Golden Bay, Westland, East Cape / North of Gisborne, and Northland,” he says by email last week. “Apart from Takaka / Golden Bay and Westland, which were delayed, the other areas are included in the strategy that I outlined last week, where we moved straight to field visit, a process which is still underway.”

Opaque comments

Stokes did indeed provide comments on March 5 about field visits. He said it was always planned to visit some remote households, with no internet, close to or on census day, as they would probably need in-person help to complete forms. However, the comment did not make clear these visits would happen after census day and StatsNZ didn’t ask Newsroom to correct the story in which Stokes said every household would get a code.

Stokes says: “I strongly reject any suggestion that the figures I provided on 5 March were misleading.”

Now, StatsNZ won’t quantify the three percent figure – of those who didn’t get codes or forms ahead of census day – ahead of a general media update this week. Newsroom put to Stokes that StatsNZ’s latest estimate is the country has 1,849,000 households and three percent of that is just over 55,000.

“The way you’re interpreting the three percent is wrong, and the figure you suggest of 55,000 is incorrect so I strongly suggest that you don’t publish it,” he says, while ignoring a request to provide the correct figure.

Stokes confirms a StatsNZ incident response team is dealing with a privacy issue, which has been referred to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

Newsroom was contacted by several people who didn’t receive a code or paper form by census day. One reader was from rural Northland, while another had no letterbox on their semi-rural road because they have a post office box. A Porirua reader received his paper form, requested on February 23, on March 7. According to the Greymouth Star, there were concerns on census day that chunks of the West Coast might miss out on getting census forms or codes on time. Westland Mayor Bruce Smith told the paper: “They've had three years to sort it out. It looks like a balls-up.”

Troubled build-up

Backroom IT problems were a feature of StatsNZ’s build-up to the census. There were problems with software from US giant Salesforce, and a delay with the system used to scan paper forms.

But in many respects, the census has already been a success. Three million people took part in the census by midnight on March 6. StatsNZ achieved its census night target of 60 percent of the estimated number of people in the country on census night taking part online. That should make it a doddle to achieve its 70 percent overall online target. In the first wave of post-census follow-ups, just over 500,000 reminder letters were printed and sent out.

Stokes says on census day its IT systems performed to expectations, with the peak load “well within that planned for”. Its systems for processing paper forms and managing field operations “are performing well”.

The ‘remind’ stage of the census operation was scheduled to finish last Friday, including two reminder letters being sent out and continuing to process requests for codes or forms. The next stage is to follow up with households that haven’t responded.

The Government department says it will provide updates at the end of each operational stage of the census. Stokes: “This is because the information we’re using to run the census operation is live operational data that is constantly changing.”

The 2018 census will be reviewed after the operation’s over.

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