A little noticed relatively minor new spending allowance in last week’s Budget is actually the first indication of what is likely to be a major and radical upheaval in one of the most basic of Government functions.

$4.5 million over three years is small change in the overall Budget context.

The money is to be allocated to the Stats NZ Census Transformation project.

Ultimately this is designed to end the five –yearly process where papers are dropped off at each house and filled in with data about who lives there and how they live.

The idea is to use the vast amounts of data that Government agencies routinely gather and out of that to answer most of the questions the census asks.

But it’s also not quite that simple.

Take population for example.

The census measures that by literally counting every person in New Zealand on census night.

Stats NZ staff have presented a research paper suggesting that a Scandinavian solution which sets up a national register in which each person has their address recorded and must register any change of address might substitute for this.

But any suggestions of a Government controlled national register is likely to inflame libertarians.


So the paper says the degree of public acceptance is a key determinant of whether a register-based statistical system is feasible in New Zealand.

“Public acceptability relates directly to trust in government as a whole, and to the extent to which Statistics NZ is distinguished as a separate agency, with its own strong standards of privacy protection, security, and confidentiality, ” the paper says. 

“Most concerns are likely to relate to the misuse of data about directly identified individuals.

“Essentially the issue is one of privacy, and the use of data for purposes for which it was not intended, particularly any uses that could adversely affect individuals.”

More recently Stats have presented research suggesting that much of the data they need is already in the Government’s hands.

Their research shows that:

  • education has very high coverage (above 98 percent) for ages 6–16
  • health has very high coverage at the youngest ages, dropping to about 70 percent at age 25; coverage then increases steadily to 90 percent at around age 65
  • tax is consistently about 90 percent coverage from age 20 onwards, only dipping slightly in the ages leading up to 65
  •  ACC has consistent coverage at about 25 percent.

The stakes are high — the budget for the 2011 Census was $90.4 million, which translated to $20.41 per person. Next year looks like costing a similar amount.

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For the new Minister, Scott Simpson, the opportunity to rethink the way Stats does its job is exciting.

He thinks next year’s census will see the start of change.

“in years gone by an army of Statistics NZ personnel would go out and knock on the doors of every dwelling in the country on a specific night with pieces of paper and forms which would have to be filled in and then people would come back and get them,” he says.

“But this census they’re going to be trying to encourage people to do as much of it on line as possible.”

But that’s only a half way house.

Simpson compares the census to the old way companies did stock takes, by physically counting the items in their stores, but now, stock numbers are kept up to date by electronic measurement.

It’s that possibility of having live real time statistics which offers the most dramatic challenge not just to Stats NZ but to Government as a whole.

A simple example – Government agencies and local bodies could know the exact population of Auckland on hour by hour basis rather than waiting every five years for the census.

Or the consumer price index could be live fed by data from EFTPOS transactions  — what would the implications of that be for the Reserve Bank and the Official Cash Rate?

It’s not an easy shift to make.

“You’ve still got maintain the credibility, the efficacy and you’ve got to maintain the response rate, and you’ve got to test all those things.”

Simpson says next year’s census will be another step along the pathway to real-time statistics.

“If you think about it we give statistical information to a range of organisations.

“Facebook knows where you are and a lot about what you are doing.

“As citizens, we often give that information away freely, without sometimes enough consideration about where that is going to end up and who is going to use it.

“Why wouldn’t the state want to move to a modern live environment where information can be recorded, captured and used for the benefit of everybody.”

Simpson also says that statistics have now become central to so much Government decision making and policy implementation – particularly the Social Investment programme.

“Statistics are the new sexy must have,” he says.

“I think suddenly; stats are very much in vogue.”

In fact, Simpson is so impressed by the way statistics are now being used that he thinks the Department should perhaps change its name to Data NZ.

“This money, the $4.5 million announced in the budget, is a four year project, it’s a step along the way.

“This is an investment in investigating options is probably the best way to put it.”

Low key so far, but maybe with the potential to shakeup the whole way citizens relate to the Government.