Census shake-up saves more than $100 million

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) House


During the 2011, Census field officers could frequently be spotted struggling up the street shouldering unwieldy luminous yellow bags bulging with Census forms, but the sight of a human data collector will largely be absent during the August 2016 Census.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has revealed it will use Australia Post to distribute online log-in codes in the mail, which millions of households are being encouraged to use to complete their Census forms online. The same codes may also be used to request a paper form – or people can ring up and request a form, if desired.

It’s a switch to digital that’s been a decade in the making.

The General Manager of the Census Statistical Network Services, Duncan Young, told Government News that the ABS expected around 65 per cent (16 million) Australians to complete their Census forms online in 2016, almost double the 33 per cent e-census return rate at the last Census.

Mr Young emphasised that households who want a paper form will still be able to request one, adding that people who slip through the net will be followed up by field officers.

Remote areas and those areas that the ABS has previously recorded as having a low online response rate will automatically be delivered paper forms by field officers or posted to people living in urban areas.

“There’s still a large group of Australians that can’t, or don’t want, to fill it out online. We will still have paper forms available. There are special phone lines to request them and immediately send paper forms to people,” Mr Young said.

“In rural Australia and smaller towns, most people will get a paper form up front. We don’t want them waiting for a form in the mail. We want to make it as easy as possible.”

Asked how realistic the 65 per cent digital forecast was, Mr Young said that based on international data and on earlier Australian Census tests it was a reasonable expectation.

“We have one of the highest [digital return rates], if not the highest, in the world.”

If the idea of sending log-in credentials via snail mail seems counter-intuitive, there’s a actually very simple explanation:  the national sweep surveys households rather than individuals making the mailbox the most logical contact point.

Running the biggest and most detailed count of Australians is a costly exercise – the government spent around $440 million on the last Census – ¬¬¬but Mr Young said ¬¬¬the 2016 count was likely to come in at $100 million less.

It’s also a big productivity boost for a financially constrained  agency that needs to make the most of its budget for people who are arguably more valuably deployed crunching and analysing data than physically collecting it in the field – though some will obviously miss the availability of the temporary  work.

The savings come from needing fewer field officers and those that are employed spending less time knocking on doors. They won’t have to deliver many forms and more e-census returns mean far fewer repeated visits to households to badger them for completed forms.

The advantages to completing the Census online include good security, faster completion and lodging times and cost savings. There will be less paper forms that need scanning and the warehouse storage space will shrink.

This time the humble, oversized workbooks used by field officers to log responses and their progress in 2011 will be replaced by a handheld scanner to log information in real time.

Mr Young said that the rise of the e-census should mean that results come out quicker. Typically, early broad-brush statistics are released at around ten months but some other detailed information can take up to two years to see the light of day.

“In most Censuses we have been able to improve the timeliness but there’s still a lot of work required to process and analyse the detail, even if it’s collected electronically,” Mr Young said.

“We expect to be able to release data early. The first release will be quicker [mid-2017] and all of the data released in just over a year. We will bring it forward as early as we can but make sure it’s still the quality that people expect.”

Make no mistake, it is still a herculean task. The ABS will still employ about 39,000 staff, with 27,000 of these being out in the field or supervising.

“But they are employed for a shorter time because they’re not doing deliveries up front, they’re just involved in helping us collect sometimes and follow up homes,” Mr Young said.

On the forms, the 45 topics remain the same with a bit of juggling so that the most popular options in the past often appear at the top of a list to save time. E-census returns will also automatically catapult people beyond those questions that don’t apply to them.

“We did a review post-2011 Census with the public and data users who gave us strong support for each existing topic. One of the strong themes for us was to keep continuity so that they can compare things over time,” Mr Young said.

There were reports earlier this year that Prime Minister Tony Abbott wanted to make the Census less frequent, or ditch it entirely, but these appeared to have receded. Mr Young said he was confident the Census would be around for a while.

“At the ABS we see it as a critical part of our statistical system and we can see it being so into the future. The big consideration is around that question of frequency but for the foreseeable future the Census will be a critical part of our statistics system and something that we are committed to.”

Asked if it could be held every decade, as it is in the UK, he said: “It’s possible. Censuses have been five-yearly in Australia since 1961. It’s particularly valuable when you consider [our] quite diverse, dynamic population.”

The Census is every five years in Canada, New Zealand and Ireland, which Mr Young said these countries are “in a similar context” to Australia.

“We will consider the frequency of the Census in context of all of the different information that could be available. There is commitment and funding [of the Census in 2016]. We will be talking to stakeholders, like government policy agencies and local and state government researchers.

“The beauty of the Census is that it’s widely used and has wide interest. We have to look at the best way of producing timely, accurate and relevant data on our society and on our people.”

The ABS has already spent the last three years preparing for Census 2016 and Mr Young says the upcoming count is “on track, on schedule and on budget”.  Around 100,000 households in South Australia and WA have already taken part in an optional test Census, which aims to ensure the model works and that “people will get mail, will open it and will request it [forms].”

“Credit to Australians. People are incredibly supportive and they get behind it when we do a test,” he said.

In May Treasurer Joe Hockey announced $250 million over five years to fix ABS’ ailing infrastructure. Mr Young said the money would be felt in future Censuses and should make data more accessible but he said, “we don’t need that investment in order to conduct this Census”.

Census day is on August 9, 2016.

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One thought on “Census shake-up saves more than $100 million

  1. I don’t trust this Duncan Young fella. He states on his LinkedIn that his “primary focus is on working to enable new business outcomes through the use of ICT”.

    Shouldn’t his primary focus be on the validity of the census data, the privacy of Australians, the effectiveness of the ICT involved (he’s an IT guy, after all) and so on?

    Why do we have someone with a stated primary motivation of ‘business outcomes’ running a program that’s about science?

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