$16m for census improvements and catch-up

The government is committing an extra $10.36 million to fund Statistics New Zealand's preparations for the 2023 national census, after lower than anticipated participation and completion marred the results of the 2018 census. And there will be an extra $5.76 million in the Budget to cover a shortfall from 2018.

Statistics Minister James Shaw announced the Budget 2019 funding decisions at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's weekly post-Cabinet press conference.

Shaw said he had confidence in the Government Statistician, Liz MacPherson, and praised her efforts to shore up the 2018 data in a series of steps that were announced earlier. However, he stopped short of backing her long term tenure in the role, saying he would "reserve judgement on the execution" of the 2018 census until after receiving an independent review of the national count led by former Deloitte NZ chairman, Murray Jack.

On top of the funding for 2023, Shaw also announced $5.76 million of funding to allow Stats NZ to complete work that had to be set aside while the statistics agency concentrated on improving the quality of the 2018 census data by accelerating a seven year-old programme to use other administrative data collected by government agency to help plug gaps created by the under-reporting by parts of the population during the census, held on March 6, 2018.

At a media conference, MacPherson declined to answer questions about her future in the role, saying she was focusing on ensuring the 2023 census was a success.

Last year's census in fact achieved a better result than the census held in 2013, which was delayed two years because of the disruption caused by the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. However, aspects of the census's findings on household and family make-up were not sufficiently robust to be released as official statistics, MacPherson said.

The census also revealed inadequate collection of iwi affiliation data from the Maori population, an issue that appears to exist across government agencies.

MacPherson suggested the five-yearly national census could become an annual affair as the official statistics agency uses more of the data constantly collected by government agencies rather than rely on declining response rates from individual citizens.

The problems with the 2018 census forced MacPherson to twice delay the usual pattern of data releases. She outlined today how Stats NZ had plugged those gaps by fast-tracking plans to make far greater use of government-collected 'administrative data' to complete population-wide counts in the future.

The agency had been testing and refining models for use of administrative data for seven years already. It had intended to use an increasing amount of such data from the 2023 census onwards and instead accelerated its modelling processes to create a statistically robust 2018 census result, MacPherson said.

Some 1.2 percent fewer people participated in the census than anticipated. Data gaps left by people not completely filling in their forms meant partial information equivalent to around 500,000 citizens was drawn from administrative data sources rather than census forms filled in on census night, March 6 last year.

“The team at Stats NZ has risen to the challenge and delivered a new way of confidently combining the strengths of census and administrative records to create the 2018 census dataset.

“There are now records for approximately 4.7 million people in the census dataset. The number of records is 1.2 percent, or 58,000 people, less than our best estimate of the population on Census Day 6 March 2018. In 2013, the official census undercount was 2.4 percent, or 103,800 people.

"Eighty-nine percent of the total number of records comes from 2018 census forms and 11 percent comes from other government data."

“We are confident that we are including genuine information about people we are sure were in New Zealand on Census Day, to help us provide as complete a picture as we can. For example, data on Maori ethnicity and Maori descent is likely to be more comprehensive than what was released from the 2013 Census,” MacPherson said.

MacPherson said the lack of robust data on iwi affiliation was "a significant loss", but that Stats NZ was taking the failure across government agencies to collect data on individual Maori peoples' iwi affiliations as "an opportunity for a completely different way forward" in collection of Maori iwi statistics.

MacPherson said the 2018 data was robust enough to allow the re-setting of electoral boundaries for the 2020 election and the population funding models used by public hospitals to determine their budgets, contrary to speculation from critics of the census process.

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