How The Census Went Wrong

KIN writer Jeremy Smith, who worked for last year’s census, explains why it was such a disaster.

Jeremy Smith

He says he was on the ground in Kapiti, the third time he has done this work.

‘Walk…house by house’

‘So how did it all go wrong?
‘In 1991 it was the traditional way, he says. ‘You learnt your territory and you walked it, house by house, gate by gate and dog by dog.

Knock at the door, explain the setup and leave the census papers ready for the Big Day.

It might take several goes. Likewise the pickup.
Even though it was end of summer and could be hot I always wore longs: this was to give the ankle-biter dogs something to hang on to.

Get to know the territory

Forward to 2013: delivery was the same: get to know the area – who lives in which house,

Who will be home on the day and deliver the forms?

At one house a woman flying the Maori sovereignty flag was having no part of this “pakeha crap”.
Solution: dispatch a fluent Te Reo speaker.

Then a rehearsal…

But that year the pickup was different… you could fill it in on-line. And in my patch –industrial Hamilton- many people did, not all but more than expected.

So this was the rehearsal for the all- on-line census next time round.
Five years on: a training day and a hint of possible problems at least in hindsight.

Census training imbroglio
We were at the Palmerston North racecourse, census field workers from the lower North Island.

One woman had come down from near Ohakune. She had been told her training centre was
at New Plymouth.

She had to explain, in fairly terse language to someone at the end of a phone that getting across the western North Island from her home was extremely difficult .
Palmy is much closer. It’s a geography thing.
The ‘waiting game…

As The Day approached our Kapiti team was assembled and prepared. So we waited. But this
time you did not have your “own” streets: instead the area would be covered by a kind of
flying squad as determined by some people at a control centre somewhere.

Census day came and went. And we waited and waited.
Then the calls came in: Where’s my census info… received nothing, by mail or anything else?

Where do I go to fill it in on-line?
So we would be dispatched. My elderly mother/aunt etc does not have a computer or a smart
phone. Paper please. I have received nothing, seen nothing… these calls were noticeable in
the beach areas of Paraparaumu and Waikanae.

Then you might be dispatched to a house on a corner, to be told by an annoyed resident that
you are the third or fourth census person to come round.
No we do not live at 45 Somewherestreet, Waikanae.

The address where our mail is delivered is on the other street number 1 Anywhere Avenue Waikanae. And we have already told the ones who came before you this.

‘It’s a geography thing

Now a pre-walk, as we used to do would pick this up. It’s a geography thing. 

A  question: how up to date are address lists or land information records held by the district council or Land Information New Zealand or NZ Post. What do the real estate agents use. What about the election people?

One of the things the census does is to tell us more about a very high migrant population. As a “census foot soldier” you met them: Tongans, Samoans, Kiribati people, Turks, Russians and so on.

Surprise:  lots of them do not have much English written or spoken. It was clear many of them did not know there was a census, or if they did that was the limit of their knowledge.

As time went by the census take-up went on and on. The longer it went on the less value: a census is a snapshot of a country on a particular day. By mid-late April that date was well gone. 

So now the head of Statistics New Zealand will leave soon.
And there’s political to and fro :  Minister James Shaw was not on the ball, the Nats say.

The previous government did not check on the preparations. Not enough people were hired. Take your pick.

Green leader James Shaw — ‘missing in action?’

Big political fight ahead

And the big political scrap is yet to come when they rejig electoral boundaries after the 2020 election.

A change in a boundary can make a safe Labour seat into a National one or vice-versa. In the past these argument were at least moderated by census figures which were trusted. Next time round?

To be fair the census people must think they are jinxed.
The 2011 census had to be delayed because the killer earthquake caused major problems for the Christchurch computers.

The 2016 Kaikoura earthquake “munted” the stats building in Wellington.

Perhaps a delay was needed?

Elite projection

What’s  the deeper cause.  
Try “elite projection.”
This expression comes from an American transport and planning consultant called Jarrett Walker. He works in Portland Oregon but has consulted in Auckland.

As he explains it elite projection is the tendency of people in positions of power or knowledge to assume everyone sees things the same way they do.

Walker’s example is how motorists see parking spaces for their cars as more important than say bus interchanges.
With the census was the assumption that algorithms will do it all?

 After all almost everyone does stuff online? Well lots of people don’t and they didn’t.

And the worst thing is all the non-counted people we met who were very concerned, who really wanted to their bit, to do their duty. They wanted to complete the census.

It will take some doing to get that trust back.

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