A decision on whether to delay all or part of the census is imminent. David Williams reports

Whatever Government ministers decide about this year’s census, it will cost more, and almost certainly not count as many people as expected.

That’s a major problem, potentially, for an under-pressure Stats NZ, which was looking to rebuild public trust after its 2018 disaster.

Damage from Cyclone Gabrielle – including severed highways, smashed and flooded houses, and power and telecommunications outages – has already upended plans for Stats NZ’s five-yearly survey.

Census operations started this past Monday but North Island staff were pulled from the field because of the cyclone. A day later, the Government declared a national state of emergency.

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Stats NZ and Statistics Minister Deborah Russell have signalled potential delays to the census – the data from which is used by public agencies and businesses for all sorts of decisions, from building schools to planning new retirement villages.

A recommendation to Russell is imminent, deputy government statistician Simon Mason confirmed by phone, just after midday yesterday.

“Within the next 24-48 hours we’ll have something to our minister. What happens beyond there will be subject to what the minister and her colleagues decide.”

The wide range of options include pushing ahead, unchanged, and “moderate to significant” delays, of between two months and two years, said Mason, the census and collection operations boss.

“We are still working through the process of what the experience [will be], if there is to be one, for particularly the affected parts of New Zealand.”

Some delay seems inevitable. We put to Mason that it would be inappropriate for census collectors to visit the worst-hit properties in the coming weeks, before census day, March 7.

Community sentiment is “first and foremost” in any deliberation, he said.

“In those affected areas, I would completely agree that people should be focused on recovery not focused on census.”

A delayed census is a more costly census

In terms of employing its 3700-odd field workers, Mason said it is understaffed “in the realms of dozens, not hundreds”.

The picture isn’t great, then: areas cut off because of cyclone damage, more recruitment needed, and delays. It’s certain more money will be required, isn’t it?

Mason: “I would imagine any form of delay will attract a need for more investment. I don’t know what the quantum of investment needed is but I would say that the benefits for census, which were calculated independently, are quite significant as well.”

Ministers are aware Stats NZ could be putting its hand out?

“I would expect that’ll be part of the consideration that they might apply to any of the options that we give.”

The census’ budget has already been stretched.

As Newsroom has reported, Stats NZ got another $8 million from the Government to “support recruitment of field staff”, taking the approved budget to $259 million.

A $33 million contingency has already been drawn down. That leaves little wiggle room for big, disruptive, climate change-fuelled weather events.

There’s an unfortunate crossover between the last census and the areas affected by Cyclone Gabrielle.

One of the problems in 2018 was paper packs weren’t given to field workers visiting hard-to-reach places – those areas with no internet or mail service – where response rates were generally low. Entire communities in some isolated areas couldn’t get paper packs sent, so missed out on the census.

Māori response rates dropped to 68.2 percent, down from 88.5 percent in 2013, while Pasifika dropped to 65.1 percent from 88.3 percent.

We asked Mason if many of those same, undercounted areas were badly affected by the cyclone.

“My understanding is most of the areas that are affected were directly under-counted in the 2018 census, but not necessarily all of them.”

Best-laid plans

Stats NZ had worked hard to bolster its presence in undercounted communities, including iwi partnerships to collect census information, and promised it would send paper forms to 44 percent of households – more than half of which would be hand-delivered to places with high Māori or Pasifika populations, or deprived areas.

Now, after the cyclone, census staff will be weighing up before March 7 if it’s even appropriate to enter certain communities. They certainly won’t if it’s not safe.

(Newsroom asked Stats NZ what proportion of its North Island staff were in the field yesterday, and an estimate of the population of the areas it can’t access, but we didn’t hear back.)

What’s the likelihood of census performance targets being met now – either for the population at large, or for participation by Māori and Pasifika?

“Almost certainly, it’ll affect our KPIs,” Mason said. “But that goes into our thinking that we’re yet to do or yet to see the materiality around.”

He points out the census uses a “combined model”, which backfills collection data with supplementary sources, called administrative data, “without going to the population”.

That’s fine for a general population count, but the downside is the inability to delve deeper.

“What we can’t do is understand more detailed variables,” Mason said. “So what iwi affiliation exists for individuals, and particularly in these affected areas? What does smoking look like? What does religious affiliation look like?”

As University of Waikato Professor Tahu Kukutai said this past week, a consequence of 2018’s poor census was no official iwi data was released.

“Iwi affiliation is not reliably and comprehensively collected across the population in any other data capture, apart from the census. So if that goes wrong it has really profound implications for iwi data.”

Fundamentally, for governments, councils and iwi to plan properly, they need to be able to count their people. All of their people.

A successful census, therefore, is not just determined by its collection but the quality of its data.

“If we can’t produce a quality outcome, that will factor in to some of those options.” – Simon Mason

Stats NZ staff and contractors have been affected by the cyclone.

On Radio NZ yesterday, Mason made a plea for four people from Hasting and Gisborne – named EJ, Murray, Lillian and Margaret – to make contact, not out of any specific concern for their welfare but because they hadn’t been heard from.

Two had subsequently been in touch, Stats confirmed yesterday afternoon.

Its staff are helping friends and whānau with cyclone-related damage, Mason said, and some are involved with the disaster response.

“We’re waiting for some of that insight from them as to what the appropriate community response is.”

News from people on the ground is a mix.

“The initial feedback from some of those areas is it’s drying out, roads are becoming more available, it is possible with some form of delay. The other extreme is we don’t have internet, we don’t have roads, we can’t get into some of those areas.”

Would a visit to, say, 80 percent of households in a first wave of census visits be acceptable?

Stats NZ doesn’t have a figure in mind, Mason said.

“But quality is one of the areas that we are focused on as well. So if we can’t produce a quality outcome, that will factor in to some of those options that I mentioned.”

Census contingency planning included “scenario, paper-based testing for some of the possibilities, a weather event being one of them”. Its field testing was also disrupted by Covid-19 restrictions, which is “very similar”, Mason said.

“We’ve got some really good people, I would say, who have done some really good work to plan for particular scenarios – not this one specifically – to give us some idea.

“We’re working closely with NEMA [the National Emergency Management Agency] and other agencies to give us more insights, particularly on those community sentiments. And we’ve got people in those communities who are giving us good community sentiment as well.

“I think we’re well placed to provide a recommendation based on some of the options. It’ll then go to ministers around what is the choice for census.”

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

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