An $8 million boost means census collectors will get higher wages. David Williams reports.

It’s not the most gung ho, confident answer.

Given the debacle of 2018, we asked Stats NZ if it’s confident there will be enough collectors, paper forms, and people staffing call centres to achieve its goals for this year’s census, taking place next month.

“Yes,” says deputy government statistician Simon Mason, “we are confident that the design of the 2023 census will make it easier, with the right support where it is needed, for people to participate in the census.”

Note the phrase “to participate in”. The comment, in an emailed statement, suggests all the infrastructure and back-end systems are in place but the result from the March 7 census will be up to the people.

(Last August, the then Statistics Minister David Clark was much more strident, saying: “The 2023 census will have more of everything – more boots on the ground, more paper forms, more hours worked and more community engagement.”)

Considering what happened five years ago, Stats NZ has a job to do to rebuild public trust.

It also needs to justify the huge expense, as the overall census budget has increased to $259 million.

Stats NZ braces for $250m census
Pulling apart the butchered census

To re-cap, the 2018 iteration was so thoroughly botched the chief statistician, Liz MacPherson, resigned.

More than one-in-seven of us, or about 700,000 people, didn’t fully complete the $126 million survey – the data from which is used for important decisions, like where to build new schools and funding for hospitals, public transport spending for councils, and setting electorate boundaries.

Oversight was poor and leadership was bad, leading to serious issues being underplayed.

The census team was slow to react in the face of low response rates – and even when they did, there weren’t enough field workers. Only 530,000 of 1.3 million printed packs were delivered.

The response rate was 83 percent but entire communities missed out, leading to a lower response rates from Māori (68.2 percent), Pasifika (65.1 percent), and 15-29 year-olds (75 percent).

Release of data was delayed, and the gaps plugged with administrative data from other government sources.

After a scathing independent review, changes have been made.

While the census will again be relying on an overwhelming online response, this time Stats NZ is leading with paper forms.

Mason, the census and collection operations boss, told Stuff in December that 44 percent of households will have paper forms posted to them or hand delivered, with a focus on areas with high Māori and Pasifika populations and in lower socio-economic areas.

Given the census is the main source of data for iwi affiliation and te reo Māori speakers, a better job must be done this time. The Data Iwi Leaders Group is represented on the census programme board, and iwi-led collections will be trialled in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), Tairāwhiti (Gisborne), and Te Whānau ā Apanui (eastern Bay of Plenty).

Stats NZ says it has twice as many engagement staff than in 2018, more than half of whom are Māori.

“Following Cabinet approval of additional funding, the census board has agreed to a 17.5 percent increase in pay rates for field staff.” – Simon Mason

Employing enough field staff was a huge problem in 2018 – not helped by decisions to cut numbers. Initially, Stats NZ had a target of 3000, which was whittled to 2300. It ended up with about 1800.

Mason says last year, in light of the tight labour market, Stats NZ sought, and Cabinet approved, $7.9 million extra to “support recruitment of field staff”. That takes the overall “approved” budget to $259 million.

(As previously reported, PersolKelly has a $42 million recruitment contract for the census.)

“Following Cabinet approval of additional funding, the census board has agreed to a 17.5 percent increase in pay rates for field staff to help attract people to the census collector roles (and stay competitive),” Mason says.

“These rates, and a 10 percent completion rate, are aimed at retaining field staff in these roles for the length of time needed to complete the collection of the 2023 census.”

And what of those field staff numbers?

Initially, it was thought 4900 collectors would be needed. In December 2021, Mark Sowden, Stats NZ’s chief executive, told the Governance and Administration Select Committee it would have “at least double” the field collectors employed in 2018.

Yet, three days before Christmas, Stats NZ said in a press statement it would be seeking “around 3000”.

Mason explains the field collection model was refined, and it now expects to employ 3092 full-time equivalents, or 3630 people with 70 percent full-time and the balance part-time.

“Field staff effort is measured by the hours of work needed to deliver the census, which has risen to approximately 980,000 hours from approximately 197,000 paid hours of field staff work for 2018.”

The census operation is broken into distinct phases:

Preparation: Pre-operational campaign activity

Enable: Operational period up to the week before census day

Encourage: One week of active encouragement to participate

Census day: March 7, the reference day for the survey

Follow up: Four weeks of visits and reminders

Close: End of the seven-week operational campaign

Stats NZ’s Mason says it has all collectors needed for the “enable” phase.

In March last year, Newsroom detailed how Stats NZ needed to find 30 more “census operations area managers” by June, and 320-350 “team leaders” by November.

We asked Stats NZ how short-staffed it is in all areas, including managers and team leaders.

Mason replied it is on track to meet required field staff recruitment numbers and turnover is being monitored and backfilled. “For the remaining collectors, we are actively appointing at present and expect to fill these roles by the planned start date.”

There is little financial wiggle-room if things go wrong. A $33 million contingency has been drawn down, Mason confirms. “We have approved expenditure of approximately $23 million of this.”

Changes to the census include new questions about gender and sexual identity which will be asked in this year’s census.

There have also been changes politically.

As mentioned previously, Labour’s David Clark is no longer statistics minister. After announcing in December he would be leaving Parliament, he was replaced by Deborah Russell, who has been sitting in the chair since February 1.

The baton has also been passed in the opposition National Party: from Michael Woodhouse, who errantly predicted the census would be delayed, to Simon Watts.

Watts, the North Shore MP – who has no comment on his predecessor’s prediction – says his party has significant concerns about whether the Government has learnt the lessons of 2018. (That’s a bit of an own-goal considering National was in power for most of the lead-up to the last census.)

The warning bells are sounding, Watts says, “in particular, the ability to ensure that the appropriate workforce is in place to collect the information we require”.

It beggars belief the minister would change weeks out from the census, he says. However, the new minister will be accountable for its delivery.

Russell responds, via email: “Statistics is on track with recruiting its team for the census. It is recruiting significantly more field workers than were in place for the 2018 census and I’m confident that census 2023 will be completed successfully.”

The first data should be released by March 29 next year. By then the public will know if all this confidence has been well-placed.

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

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