Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Census 2016 A Brighter Future?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) logo statement for its Census is "A Brighter Future" but its controversial proposal to dump the 2016 Census in favour of Censuses every 10 years has rung alarm bells about what this future might mean!

Australia, New Zealand, Canada are amongst those countries that continue to undertake 5 yearly Censuses, providing timely population, household and working data information public and private sector decision making. Naturally, the costs and resources involved in such an undertaking are high. The ABS has cited the $440million costs of the 2011 Census collection as a key consideration in evaluating its options for 2016 and beyond. Moreover, the ABS has indicated that whilst it has actively been preparing to conduct the 2016 Census, it has just as actively been preparing other strategies and approaches to not undertake the Census in 2016. The problem here is, what does this mean for those businesses, planning organisations and government agencies relying on the future release of data from the 2016 Census to assist their own planning decisions?

The implications and impacts are and will be far reaching of any major change to the ABS’s collection and dissemination of data. But why the cloak and dagger games? Why only now, when there is little time for other organisations to plan for their own data interrogation, has the ABS started this discussion?

New Zealand is also considering the future of its data collection and Census programs, but has undertaken consultation and prepared a range of technical papers reviewing the options and implications of Census periods and alternative collection methods. Statistics New Zealand has maintained a clear and transparent strategy in reviewing its Census process, and has a clear mandate to phase in a range of alternative collection tools, recognising that rapid change to collection methods will not only have teething problems when it comes to the rigour and validity of the data, but the needs of the many stakeholders relying on the validity and timeliness of the data must also be considered. Something perhaps the ABS has forgotten in its haste to stave off costs?

This is simply not a change that can be implemented over night, or even within 12months. Let us not forget the labour force statistics farce the ABS has needed to rectify!

Whilst there are alternative methods of collection – eg. increasing mail distribution of the survey and internet response rates, there are a raft of administrative methods that could also be applied, as are increasingly investigated and utilised in countries such as Italy. Collection and collation of administrative data such as electoral role, taxation and Centrelink information would offer a range of population, key demographic and socio-economic variables that can be updated regularly and present a useful snapshot between major Censuses or as alternative collection method. However, these administrative methods certainly take considerable time to adopt, implement, correlate and geographically reference. Extreme Data Mining! Confirming the validity of the collection and collation of these administrative tools should be based on interrogation with Census data before fully relying on these administrative tools. Not something that can be done with little more than 12 months before the next scheduled Census.

And what about understanding our working population – where people work, and the profile of this working community is also critical in local community planning and investment decision activity. Ensuring that there is a collection method to understand our working communities is vital!

It is not only about the costs of collection to the ABS that need to be factored in. What about the costs to government agencies, the not-for-profit and private sector to collect and collate other data? The impacts on decision making without timely, accurate datasets. A halt to both public and private sector investment activity right at the time we need to be stimulating economic activity in Australia.

This is not “a Brighter Future”. More certainty. More clarity. More information needed!

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