New Zealand Moves to Data-Driven Census in Test Case For Others

New Zealand Moves to Data-Driven Census in Test Case For Others

New Zealand’s statistics agency is starting to use administrative data collected elsewhere to generate its five-yearly national census, a move that may be watched closely by other countries as people become more reluctant to complete traditional surveys.

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(Bloomberg) — New Zealand’s statistics agency is starting to use administrative data collected elsewhere to generate its five-yearly national census, a move that may be watched closely by other countries as people become more reluctant to complete traditional surveys.

Statistics New Zealand conducted a hybrid census in 2023, correctly anticipating that it would need to use data collected by the tax authority and other government agencies to fill gaps in its surveys, Chief Statistician Mark Sowden said in an interview. For the 2028 census, the plan is for administrative data to be the primary source of information.

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“We will use admin data first where we can, and then where there are holes in the quality or coverage of that data, we’ll use forms,” he said.

Using more administrative data counters the spiraling cost of surveys and is a way of measuring some groups including indigenous Maori that are reluctant to respond to traditional methods. New Zealand’s experience will be monitored by nations such as Australia and Canada, which are also considering how to reduce reliance on surveys, Sowden said.

“We’re in the leading edge of the pack in terms of moving away from surveys and into the admin data space,” he said. “The Canadians and the Australians are probably about one census behind us.”

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Statistics New Zealand recently published a consultation document on how it wants to conduct the 2028 census. It identifies that there is high quality administrative data available for household income and the population, which are about half of the questions on a census form. The issue is how to collect answers to questions administrative data cannot cover, like personal habits and housing quality.

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“Does that justify and does that require a full enumeration census where you go to every house or can you do that in say, a 100,000 person survey or some other form of survey?” said Sowden.

As well as using administrative data for the census, Statistics New Zealand wants to eventually use it for other reports such as the household labor force survey that generates the jobless rate. A large-scale transformation project is under way within the agency to improve technology and models.

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That goes hand-in-hand with efforts within other government agencies to improve data quality as the government moves to a social investment approach that uses data to identify people most in need of welfare assistance.

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“We’re going to have a program over time of trying to improve that data quality,” Sowden said. “So that’s investing in our system. It might be helping Inland Revenue invest in their systems or the Ministry of Health to invest in their systems.”

Cost is a key factor for Statistics New Zealand as the new center-right government seeks to reduce spending across the public sector. The 2023 census cost NZ$316 million ($193 million), nearly three times the 2018 edition.

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Sowden said the transition to more use of administrative data is a crucial project and he will ensure funding is in place for it.

“Without doing this transformation, my organization probably has a fairly downward looking future,” Sowden said. “It’s hard work to keep getting the responses from the traditional survey model. So I’m determined to ring fence the money and the people we need to be able to do this transformation. I’m looking at the reductions elsewhere.”

Sowden doesn’t foresee a census being conducted without surveys, but said they will gradually play less of a role. 

“Admin data is a long game,” he said. “For census 2033, I would hope that we use even more admin data and even fewer surveys or survey questions.”

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