The importance of transparency in a time of rapid decision making and the 2028 population census

By Len Cook
Former New Zealand Government Statistician

There are strong signals from official statisticians that the Government is progressing plans for linking information held in state agency records to create a substitute for the 2028 Census of Population. There are concerns that Ministers would see such proposals as a way of justifying not taking the census in 2028 as another budget cut.

The case for better population statistics

Never have the breadth and quality of population statistics been of such importance to public life and investment in New Zealand. Yet recognition within Census data of the critical population transitions that we are experiencing is poor. 

There is a huge gap between what we need from population statistics for today, and the breadth and quality of existing statistics. The scale and volatility of migration, the impact of increased longevity, and the different demographic dynamics of fast-growing ethnic communities need to be continually measured in ways we can trust. 

This problem has been under the radar for at least a decade. Statistical measures often inform legal obligations, the most recent known requirement is the expectation by Ministers for local bodies to use population projections in the new thirty-year period for planning for housing.

What makes change to the population statistics difficult

Significant decisions made in many sectors depend on the scope, frequency, and quality of population statistics. Meanwhile there are many disconnects affecting the use of statistics in New Zealand. The primary producers of data - Stats New Zealand and the Treasury - are unaware of how a majority of their data is used and the consumers of the data generally do not contribute by informing the producers about how they are using the data or assist in its definition and collection. 

There is an urgent need for increasing and broadening the analytical competence among public officials, particularly about population trends and dynamics, so that there might be less managerial and political indifference to the sources of “facts” that support policy. The then Public Services Commissioner confirmed this need when he gave advice to a Governance and Administration Committee in April 2023 saying that “there has been a loss of strategic capability across the public service”.

What will enable confidence in changes to the census

Confidence in statistical decisions inevitably involves transparency, validation, and independent peer review. Assurance is needed that the statistical qualities of the information obtained by a Census will be maintained. 

We must know well in advance what would be gained and lost by replacing the information obtained from the Census of Population and Dwellings in 2028 with administrative records held by the Crown. This depends on the public sector being properly equipped to advise Ministers of the consequences of the possible change. Ministers would be most unwise to act without taking independent advice that is informed by both statistical expertise, and a proper appreciation of how population statistics are going to be needed. 

Budget secrecy must not be an excuse for avoiding early transparency in what advice has been taken by all involved.

Any occasion when the management of the balance between expert advice and political expediency is weak, downstream implications are unlikely to be fully recognised, or risks protected.

Civil society organisations and those who function as guardians of the public interest must have reason for confidence in those statistical practices that they will not have the expertise to evaluate. 

The unheralded termination of the Living in Aotearoa Survey in early 2024 left no opportunity for prior expert consideration of the implications. Our population statistics have such a wide reach that were this to happen to the 2028 population census, there could be costly consequences, which are unlikely to be made transparent.

Whatever course of action is chosen for the Census, it must be a scientifically valid solution, with collection and verification processes that are transparent.

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