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About the 2018 Census

The Census Test held in Whanganui in April 2017 provided a last opportunity to test and evaluate the content decisions that have been made by the Government Statistician ahead of the 2018 Census.

Modernising the 2018 Census

The overall goal of the census is to produce the best possible count of the population and dwellings in New Zealand every five years, as required by the Statistics Act 1975. This count, along with other related statistical information, is delivered to customers through a useful and accessible range of products and services. The census is the cornerstone of New Zealand's Official Statistics System (OSS).

We are modernising the way we run the 2018 Census, while maintaining the quality of the data produced – especially the important counts of every person and dwelling in New Zealand.

Our new approach includes the following:

  • Most people will be contacted by mail, rather than by a census collector visiting their home.
  • We are shifting to an online-first approach. Although some respondents (34 percent) completed their census forms online for the 2013 Census, for 2018 we expect use of online forms will increase and that more respondents will complete forms online than on paper. Using online forms provides new opportunities for improving data quality and respondent experience.

We have investigated making greater use of administrative data to improve the quality of census data. In the long term, we plan to produce census information directly from administrative sources where possible.

See appendix 1 for more information on the use of administrative data.

Updating the content for the 2018 Census

We are also updating the content for the 2018 Census. With little change to census content since 2001, our focus for the 2018 Census is to maintain and improve the relevance of content to better meet customer needs.

We have fully assessed the range of information we collect. As a result, we will be collecting some new topics in the 2018 Census, and are making a number of changes to existing topics. The aim of these changes is to improve the relevance and quality of the information collected, while balancing the need to preserve data comparability over time so that trends can be tracked.

Although there was scope for new information to be collected in the 2018 Census, we had to consider the effect of this on respondent burden and data quality. While we have made changes since the 2013 Census, most census topics have remained unchanged to preserve the comparability of the data over time.

Census content development also occurs alongside classification and standard reviews that are undertaken periodically to improve the relevance of official statistics. These reviews can affect both the content and costs of the census, particularly where classification changes may lead to changes in the processing systems and data that is produced. Decisions on whether to include classification and standard changes in the census must balance the timing of reviews with the development phases of the census, and so not all changes can be incorporated.

2018 Census content development process

Census content decisions affect other areas of the census programme and the wider OSS, so the process must be efficient and thorough. Our aim is to understand customer information needs and maximise the effective use of all available data sources in developing statistical solutions to meet those needs. We consider the wider statistical system when responding to customer needs for data.

To determine final census content we:

  • undertook public engagement and consultation – these were the first steps in the 2018 Census content development process
  • investigated whether information needs could be met from other data sources
  • carried out survey development work, including further research, development of the questionnaires, and testing (testing included cognitive testing of questions, mass completion tests, and two large-scale tests in 2016 and 2017)
  • considered questionnaire constraints, real-world change, respondent burden, classification reviews, and international trends.

Criteria for determining census content

We evaluated all topics raised during engagement and consultation against the following set of criteria for determining census content, as presented in Preliminary view of 2018 Census content: For public engagement and consultation.

Table 2
Content criteria for the 2018 Census

Content criteria for the 2018 Census

Does the proposed change add value to New Zealand's society and economy?

  • Can the data be used by a wide range of decision-makers?
  • Will the data be used to inform decisions of national significance?
  • Will the information support New Zealand’s key uses of data?

Is the census the most appropriate information source?

  • Is there wide geographical relevance across New Zealand?
  • Is there wide relevance across the New Zealand population?
  • Is small area or small population data needed?
  • Does the census provide information quickly and often enough?
  • Does the census provide the kind of information required?
  • Is census the best data source to meet customer needs?
  • Will the census provide data of sufficient accuracy?
  • Will the census provide data of enough depth?

Does the proposed change reflect an enduring information need?

  • Does the proposed change align with Stats NZ’s future thinking (eg the census transformation strategy)?

Will the proposed change produce quality information?

  • Are there minimal or no quality problems?
  • Will the proposed change give better quality data?

Is there continuity with previous census data?

  • Is it consistent and comparable with previous census data?

Is data consistent with other data collections?

  • Is it consistent with other data collections (concepts, definitions, classifications)?

Is there general acceptance of the proposed change?

  • Are there particular concerns for specific groups?
  • Is it non-intrusive?
  • Is it non-offensive?
  • Are respondents willing and happy to answer?
  • Do respondents feel the proposed change is of value?

Would the proposed questions be easy for respondents to complete?

  • Are they easy to understand and interpret?
  • Are they easy (simple) and quick to answer?
  • Do people know the answer? 

We ranked all topics based on these criteria, and used a cut-off point to determine whether they were suitable for inclusion in the census. A significant number of new topics, or changes to existing topics, were proposed during the engagement and consultation period. However, we’ve included only some of these in the 2018 Census. This is due to a number of constraints limiting the amount of content that can be included in a census-style survey.

Constraints that limit census content

When planning the 2018 Census, we needed to consider not only the suitability of individual topics for inclusion, but also the factors that place constraints on census content:

Some topics are required by law

Under the Statistics Act 1975, certain topics must be collected in the census. These are:

  • name, address, sex, age, and ethnicity of every occupant of a dwelling
  • location, number of rooms, ownership, and number of occupants on census night of every occupied dwelling.

Other legislation, such as the Electoral Act 1993, implicitly requires topics to be included in the census. Examples of these topics are Māori descent and the ‘usually resident’ population.

The collection of data must be cost-effective

The value of the information collected and the cost-effectiveness of the census as a source of information have to be fully demonstrated for each topic. In some cases, for example, it may be more cost-effective to collect the data using a sample survey.

The length of the questionnaire is limited

Factors that limit the length of the questionnaire are the time required to answer it, and the costs and practical issues associated with collecting, processing, and disseminating the information. Consequently, the number of questions that can be included in the census is finite. As noted above, in order to make the best use of limited space, particularly on the paper form, each topic considered for inclusion was evaluated against all other topics. This evaluation assisted us to prioritise topics by how well they fit the criteria for inclusion.

Respondent burden and resistance must be minimised

The census forms must be designed so that all people in New Zealand on census night are willing and able to complete them. This means that topics that offend or annoy, or are complex and difficult to answer, cannot be included in the census. It is also very important that respondents can complete the forms in a reasonable amount of time.

Continuity and relevance need to be balanced

We need to strike a balance between the historical continuity of census data and current relevance. Users of census data require both. The census must retain its ability to monitor demographic, social, and economic change over time, while being able to measure new phenomena as they arise.

The frequency with which a topic is included in the census is affected by the rate of change of the data being measured. If the rate of change is slow, it may not be necessary to include the topic in every census. Such topics are referred to as cyclical.

The need for data consistency

The census plays a central role in New Zealand’s wider system of population, social, and economic statistics. Data from the census is used together with data from other sources to calculate a wide range of measures. This means that the concepts, definitions, and classifications used in the census need to be consistent with those used in other data collections.

Public engagement and consultation process

Engagement and consultation play a major role in ensuring that the census content remains relevant and reflects real-world change. This census cycle we undertook engagement and consultation using three different methods. We ran online engagement, held face-to-face seminars and workshops in five main centres, and accepted formal submissions.

The purpose of using three different methods was to move toward modernisation and to engage with a wider range of people than we have in previous census content consultations.

We promoted our engagement and consultation with public notices in the local newspapers, newsletters to over 3,000 census data users, social media posts, targeted emails, and phone calls to our key stakeholders.

The engagement and consultation started in late 2014 with online engagement with Stats NZ staff and initial meetings with key agencies.

Online engagement

Online engagement consisted of two phases: engagement with Stats NZ staff and public engagement.

The online engagement with Stats NZ staff used a discussion forum tool called Loomio and ran over a four-week period from November 2014. This discussion forum involved subject matter area experts from Stats NZ. It helped us test Loomio’s functionality and formulate our Preliminary view of 2018 Census content, which we then invited the public to discuss and submit on.

Public online engagement ran over nine weeks from April 2015 using Loomio. This was the first time that we conducted live, supported, public online engagement. It was a unique opportunity for the public to have their say about census content and for us to learn to engage with the public in this way.

Face-to-face seminars and workshops

In addition to meetings with key agencies at the end of 2014, we ran face-to-face seminars and workshops in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin in May 2015. The seminars involved a small group of technical experts, and provided an introduction to the modernised 2018 Census and a general overview of census content. The workshops included a detailed run-through of the Preliminary view of 2018 Census content for each topic.

Formal submissions

The formal submission period started two weeks after online engagement in May 2015 and closed at the end of June 2015. We began formal submissions after online engagement to encourage people to discuss and develop their thinking with others on the discussion forum before making a formal submission. Where appropriate, we encouraged people to represent the views of their organisation.

For formal submissions, we encouraged people to fill in a form on the Stats NZ website, but also accepted email and paper submissions. This approach was in line with our digital-first goal for the 2018 Census.

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