Census 2023: Getting the count right

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 16 February 2023

The Census is crucial not just for knowing about how many people there are in New Zealand, but for ensuring the right services are delivered in the right places. After the fiasco of 2018, what's being done to get it right this time?

A Census 2023 ltter being removed from a letterbox.

Big changes are being made this year to improve the turnout for Census 2023 Photo: 2023 Census, Stats NZ

The official count of the population is happening in just a few weeks.

And after the disaster of the Census 2018, there's hope this one will be much better.

The Census is crucial not just for knowing how many people there are in the country - it also helps government, central and local, plan things like healthcare services, areas for housing development and public transport routes.

Newsroom journalist David Williams has covered the Census extensively.  

"I was looking back through some of the stories [about the 2018 Census] and 'botched' is the favourite word I think," he says. 

But Williams says many improvements have been made for this year. 

"[Stats NZ] has consulted widely on what they could do better," Williams says. 

"They're going to trial iwi-led data collection. They also had a partnership with a Data Iwi Leaders Group so there is a more rigorous focus on those communities."
The 2018 Census, which mostly went online, missed about 30 percent of Māori and Pasifika people - and Waikato University Professor of Demography Tahu Kukutai says that's "terrible".
"There were a whole bunch of people who didn't get codes and then, people who didn't know what to do once they got the codes, and then there were also those who just got their forms physically delivered but didn't return them. It wasn't one smoking bullet, there were a whole bunch of critical steps that didn't get taken."
This year's Census is expected to cost about $259 million, more than double what the last Census cost. Stats NZ says that's because they're using more paper, they've got more accessible formats (ie sign language, large print, braille and audio) and there'll be more collectors out on the streets. 

Kukutai says historically there's been "real dissatisfaction" with the way data's been collected and Māori felt their data had been "weaponised".
"If you cast your mind back to before 1986, the measure that was used in the Census to classify people was degree of blood - it was blood quantum.

"I remember in our household, my Mum and Dad would be looking at the Census form where you had to quantify the degree of Māori blood of your tamariki. It was just outrageous and it was so racist and it was just a legacy of the Victorian concept of biological race." 

Kukutai is optimistic changes have been made for the better, but she still has fears. 

"A lot has changed since 2018 - we've had the pandemic, we've got a real crisis of misinformation and disinformation, there are these social cleavages which have become so much more visible...that could well have an impact on census taking, even with the best efforts. 

"I don't have a crystal ball, but what I do know is governments around the world are facing real challenges when it comes to census taking. The twilight of the census could be nigh." 

Check out the full podcast episode to find out what the alternatives to a formal Census could be.

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