National MP stands by his prediction the census, scheduled for next year, will be delayed. David Williams reports

On February 16, deputy government statistician Craig Jones told the Governance and Administration Select Committee the census dress rehearsal had been disrupted by Covid-19.

Forms would be sent out, and “end-to-end” process would be tested to ensure Stats NZ was well prepared for next year’s census, he said via a video call. But the on-the-ground part, known in census parlance as “assist”, involving door-knocking in South Auckland and Eastern Bay of Plenty, had been “de-scoped”.

(A paper from earlier that month noted there had been “negative community sentiments” against face-to-face interaction.)

“We’re working through how we’ll test those other elements of the dress rehearsal that we’ve had to de-scope,” said Jones, Stats NZ’s deputy chief executive for data system leadership.

“The reality is Covid has made this difficult, it’s made that difficult in other countries, too, and other countries have delivered successful censuses, and we’re confident we’ll do that, too. We’re just deploying our contingency plan at the moment around how we’re going to test those other elements of this process.”

Jones, and Statistics Minister David Clark appeared before the committee to answer questions about the Data and Statistics Bill, which was introduced to the house last October, and had its first reading the following month.

National MP Michael Woodhouse pointed out a clause of the Bill said the census must take place in 2023, and asked if a delay would necessitate legislative change.

“I suspect it would,” Clark said, adding it was “weighing on my mind at the moment”. He deferred to Jones, who said, rather obliquely, there were other options that could be explored around the current Bill.

Clark reinforced a delay wasn’t a decision to be taken “on the fly”, and he would “listen carefully” to advice from Stats NZ.

A month later, National’s Woodhouse predicted the census would be delayed.

Now, he claims his views are backed by information contained in documents released to him under the Official Information Act, and shared with Newsroom.

They show officials have been working on a contingency date – with a preference for March 2024 – since June last year.

“Those documents also reveal a level of concern, I think, about the ability to deliver a census next year,” Woodhouse says.

The National MP says Clark was “equivocating” at the Select Committee, downplaying that a delay was actively being worked on. Meanwhile, his officials had been working on a possible delay for months.

In emailed answers, sent on Saturday, Clark says he’s confident the census will take place next year – that he’s advised Stats NZ is “well-positioned” to deliver it, as scheduled.

He then repeats a statement provided to Newsroom in March, about how “uncertain context and uncertainties” meaning it’s prudent to pursue a mechanism to allow for a change in timing to the next census.

Asked how long officials have been working on a possible census delay, Clark says Stats NZ has been “assessing its readiness” for “some time”.

The Minister says he hasn’t asked for a Cabinet paper to be prepared in which a delay is being considered. (As we’ll discover later, officials have already anticipated this.)

Clark confirms options for a delay were presented by officials in February – the same month as his Select Committee appearance – and a paper went to Cabinet about introducing “legislative flexibility” should a delay be necessary.

The Select Committee’s report on the Bill, published last week, recommended the clause on the census date be amended to say “2023 or 2024”.

National MPs on the committee said the clause was too broad, and a decision to delay should be restricted to certain emergency reasons, and involve public consultation.

Woodhouse, the National MP, thinks the Government isn’t prepared to go through another shambles like 2018 in March next year, which will be six months from a general election.

“What I’m calling for is some openness,” he says.

“Actually, I don’t think they’ve made a decision yet. But I do think they will, and that decision will be to kick it down the road to 2024.”

A combination of bad leadership, poor oversight, and flawed decisions led to the 2018 debacle, which left officials scrambling to fill the gaps in data because of low response rates. In the next edition, whether next year or in 2024, Stats NZ plans to have more community engagement, better access to paper forms, and greater assistance filling them in.

The National Party wonders if David Clark is on top of preparations for next year’s census. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Woodhouse has shared an Official Information Act response about potential delays to the census. Data produced by the five-yearly survey is crucial for decisions such as health funding, locating future schools, and infrastructure spending by local councils.

A paper to the census programme board, from last October, said if it couldn’t be held on March 7, 2023 – “in the event that an issue/crisis/event occurs” – the recommended contingent date was March 5, 2024.

That work originated from a census board meeting last June, at which the proposed 2023 date was accepted, pending a proclamation process and ministerial approval. An additional paper with contingency dates was requested.

The October paper said flexibility for the date could be added to the Data and Statistics Bill while it was still in bill form.

“Election risks” were noted, because there was a shared workforce between the census and elections, and forms are printed by the same company. But also: “Overlapping the Census period with the Elections period is a communications risk as Census may not be perceived as politically neutral, or impact our marketing ability.”

The next paper, from last December, suggested amending the Bill “to lawfully enable postponement of the 2023 census”. Written by a senior policy adviser, it was sent to Stats NZ deputy chief executive Jones.

The Covid-19 pandemic posed a significant risk, the paper said, but the 2023 census was “on track”. Consideration of a change would be prudent given the pandemic could continue to cause disruptions.

(In its 171-year history, the census has only been cancelled three times – in 1931, during the Great Depression, in 1941, because of World War Two, and in 2011, after the deadly Christchurch earthquake.)

Already, Stats NZ surveys using in-person data collection had experienced “significant drops” in response rates, the paper said.

The census board chose the 2024 date as a suitable contingency.

However, in a line which busts Woodhouse’s narrative, somewhat, the paper said: “There are currently no indications that the 2023 Census will be unable to be held within its legislated timeframe. It is appropriate to assess options for incorporating the amendment as part of contingency planning at this time, in light of the Bill’s progress through the House.”

Deciding a Plan B “raises the visibility of contingency planning”, the paper said, which should reassure the public about planning for potential disruptions.

On the flip side, however, there was already a negative public perception about the “problematic” digital-first census in 2018. Incorporating an amendment “might fuel a mistaken public perception that the 2023 Census is already at risk of delay or cancellation”.

“This is likely to further harm the relationship between Stats NZ and Māori, iwi and hapū.”

The paper read as an endorsement of the 2023 date, saying any delay “is likely to further decrease public confidence in Stats NZ and in the statistics produced from census data”.  

Three days before Christmas, the paper prompted an email by Jones, who kicked a decision to the executive leadership team (ELT).

“We are having a substantive discussion on the dress rehearsal in mid-January, which will have implications for the timing of Census 2023. I think we should wait until that discussion has been had before presenting this paper to ELT for decision.”

A “high level options analysis” paper, dated February 1 and noted as a draft, said an advantage of holding the census in 2023 was it would be “delivered within the approved budget”. However, with the “assist” portion of the census dress rehearsal being scrapped, the ground operations might not be “modelled to the extent required”.

Large swathes of the document were redacted.

“If that means delaying for 12 months so that we get better data and information, then they should be upfront with the NZ public.”
– Michael Woodhouse

On February 3, the census board said a paper would developed by May or June with detailed analysis of the risks, benefits and consequences of the census staying on its existing schedule. The final recommendation of a delay – a “go/no go decision” – would be presented to the board and the Minister “and probably Cabinet” in late June.

If a recommendation was made to delay the census, a Cabinet paper needed to be drafted by June 9 “in order to produce a paper for an early August Cabinet meeting”.

A February 8 email written by Jones, the deputy chief executive, said timelines for changes to the Data and Statistics Bill were “extremely tight”. Internal agreement would be needed that it wanted to put through a supplementary order paper – an amendment, in other words – and agreement would be sought from Clark “that he wants to do this”.

A risk was the paper would be released to MPs in May – “which looks to be running ahead of the ministerial decision on whether to delay”. While contingencies “would probably seem reasonable”, it is “likely to raise question in the House that we would need to be prepared for”.

On February 9, Jones’s boss Mark Sowden, the Government statistician, said work should start on the supplementary order paper, followed by a “tactical discussion closer to the drop-dead date as to whether we use it”.

Jones replied he had “asked the team to progress”.

Les Greeff, the 2023 census programme director, replied to an email titled “update for Minister on census options” on February 10. Options fell into two broad categories, Greeff wrote: “Option 1 – proceed with the 2023 Census as per the current plan”, and “Option 2 – Delay the Census to 2024”.

Greeff asked an accountant to provide cost estimates, which were redacted.

The big problem Stats NZ had was its inability to test its door-knocking operation in a dress rehearsal. How would it know it’s ready? The board wanted a range of assurance work undertaken, listed as: a market research assessment, an expert panel review, a quantitative risk assessment, and “targeted engagement”.

On February 18, options mulled by Sowden’s office included one-off changes to legislation or “enduring” flexibility. One option was removing the requirement that an official, five-yearly count of people and dwellings be done via a census. “Significant policy work is required to determine the provisions associated with this option.”

Stats NZ officials discussed options for amending the Bill with Clark on February 21 – five days after his Select Committee appearance. A paper “Enabling a change to the timing of the next census” was circulated the next day.

Jones was glowing about the draft paper – “pulled together in an heroic space of time”. He made quite a few editorial changes, mainly to improve readability “but I think we also over-egged our preparedness in places so hopefully I’ve pulled back on that a wee bit”.

At the end of March, the Select Committee was presented with a draft bill containing provisions for a possible delay.

Beyond problems with the dress rehearsal, there are other reasons to suggest a postponement might be justified.

In January, Newsroom outlined problems raised in internal Stats NZ documents last year, including an expected $40 million rise in costs for the census, to $250 million, staff recruitment issues, and delays in creating back-end software systems.

Woodhouse, the National MP, says the next census must have higher quality data than it did four years ago. “If that means delaying for 12 months so that we get better data and information, then they should be upfront with the New Zealand public. They can’t have $1 each way.”

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

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