Counting People – the 2018 Census

In advance of the release of the 2018 Census data on 23 September, 2019, TINZ staff attended a 2018 Census pre-release presentation by Stats NZ.

The discussion highlighted the pivotal role the census plays, issues related to the current data, and plans for improving the results for the next census in 2023.

Pivotal role of the census

Poor outcomes from the 2018 census have highlighted its pivotal role in New Zealand’s data ecosystem.

The census underpins the development of government policy and informs decisions by business, iwi (the people, nation), and local and central government agencies. It is a resource for research and academic purposes. It is the framework for other important social surveys.

An accurate comprehensive census is pivotal to an open, transparent and inclusive democracy.

Challenges and outcomes from the 2018 Census

The 2018 census involved a shift from a primarily paper-based census to a digital census. Fewer field staff were deployed and fewer forms printed.  The online forms differed from previous census documents. In addition there was more digital processing of the forms plus increased reliance on government administrative data.

The census project faced major challenges including the November 2016 earthquake, the unintended consequences of the digital shift, and governance, management and resourcing of the exercise.

Poor outcomes were:

  • Response rates for the Census fell to around 83%. About 240,000 people in New Zealand on Census Day failed to fully complete the census and 480,000 did not complete it at all.  Full or partial information for only 90% of individuals was received, compared with a 94.5% response rate for the 2013 Census.
  • The response rate was worse for Māori and Pasifika, of whom just 65 and 63% respectively filled out the forms (Māori completion was 88.5% in 2013).
  • Missing, incorrect, or incomplete families and household data has seriously impeded reliable information on household income.
  • The inability to fill gaps with other types of data has impeded reliable iwi affiliation data.

Independent review report

The recently released independent review report by Murray Jack and Connie Graziadie provides an excellent review of the challenges, and also of some achievements of the 2018 census.  

Three ‘take homes’ from this report:

  1. It is incredibly important for governance and management to understand and manage critical dependencies and associated risks alongside milestones. Put simply, Stats NZ tended to focus on the trees and missed the wood.
  2. No one should be left behind. A significant portion of targeted sub-population groups and special dwellings were simply unable to complete the census at all, or not able to fill it in correctly.  The review report shows the breakdowns that led to this failure: prioritisation of goals, pressure on finances and time, reduced numbers of field staff and forms, increased complexity in usde of the form, and limited and broken “help” support.
  3. Gains were made from the current census including the use of administrative data. We need to make sure those gains are not lost in the next census.

The independent reviewers made 16 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by Stats NZ.  These include support for the planned census in 2023, with enough contingency funding to meet risks and to have sufficient engagement with iwi and Pasifika.

There are also recommendations strengthening independent expert advice and stewardship of the Census methodology and design, and improvements to management and leadership.

Census release

The first reports from the 2018 census were published on 23 September 2019, 11 months later than planned. 

These show census resident population and census night population counts, dwelling counts and census tools for some topics. Further reports will follow with all data expected to be available by June 2020.  We can also expect the first report from the external Data Quality Panel of Experts at the end of September.


Video of the pre-release webinar at the following link

Independent Report

Geographic Standard Review

Methodology papers:

Introduction to New Zealand Census

Operational phases of the 2018 Census

Developing the forms for 2018 Census

Targeted field strategies

Communication and engagement strategies

Census Dwelling Frame

Processing and evaluating the census data

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