This year’s census, with a $121 million budget, is “digital-first”, with a goal of 70 percent of people filling in their forms online. Photo: Getty Images

The Government department in charge of the census is putting a brave face on reported problems. David Williams reports.

Every household in New Zealand will get at least a code to take part in the census by the end of today, StatsNZ assures.

Yesterday and today, 500 census field staff have been delivering paper forms or access codes to remote areas, some with no internet access and with households that may have trouble completing the form alone.

“A higher level of support is required so we try to get the forms completed while the staff member is there and then everything is done in one visit,” StatsNZ’s census senior manager of communications, marketing and census engagement Richard Stokes says via email. “This is best done on or as close to census day as possible, hence why it was not planned for earlier.”

By yesterday morning, 96 percent of households had received census letters and 1.2 million forms had been completed online. Only 1133 paper forms had been returned.

Ex-cyclone Gita delayed postal deliveries in some areas. Hundreds of homes in Kaikohe and the East Cape are expected to be reached today.

Asked if every single household will at least get a code by the end of today, the official census day, Stokes says: “Yes, they will all get a code.” He adds: “We are making it clear that people can still respond after census day.”

This year’s census, with a $121 million budget, is “digital-first”, with a goal of 70 percent of people filling in their forms online. One of the benefits of this is a lower cost – with fewer field officers required. However, if internet-based replies don’t meet expectations, then it could cost more.

Concerns and complaints

Over the last week, multiple media reports have highlighted problems or complaints about the census. The operators of rest homes and hostels have been worried they won’t be enough codes to go around and a blind couple from Wellington complained they had been sent a code by post but didn’t know what it was. Some households were sent two codes by mistake.

Stokes told Newsroom last Thursday: “At this stage, there are no strong themes being reported from the call centre that would suggest any significant issues arising from the postal delivery of census codes.”

Community groups have held classes for those wanting help to fill in their forms. In Auckland, a community group was brought in to translate forms for non-English speakers.

Stokes says between February 19 and March 4, 60,000 calls to the census call centre were answered by agents and 85,000 were answered by an interactive voice response system. “This compares to our estimations of 95,000 answered by agents and 125,000 calls answered by the IVR, so well within what we had planned for.”

Since December, Newsroom has reported on multiple issues facing census bosses, including problems with a crucial back-end IT system, a paper form shortfall and an external project manager was appointed when a company missed its deadline to provide form-scanning software.

Stokes says between 1800 and 2000 field officers will be door-knocking over the next few weeks to check households that haven’t completed the online form or returned a paper one.

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David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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