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Census transformation in New Zealand

This page provides information on possible changes to how the census will be run in the future, and why the changes are necessary.

About the census

The census is the official count of how many people and dwellings there are in New Zealand. It is a snapshot of the people in New Zealand and where we live.

Information from the census helps determine how government funding is spent in the community. It is used to help make decisions about which services are needed and where they should be, such as hospitals, kōhanga reo, schools, roads, public transport, and recreational facilities. Census information is also used by councils, community groups, iwi, and businesses to plan for the future, and make decisions on issues that affect us all.

The Census Transformation programme

Our Census Transformation programme is investigating different ways of running the census. Its purpose is to modernise the current census model in the short to medium term, and to investigate alternative ways of producing small-area population, social, and economic statistics in the long term. This includes the possibility of changing the census frequency to every 10 years, and exploring the feasibility of a census based on administrative data.

This two-fold approach is the basis of the census transformation strategy, approved by Cabinet in early 2012.

See Transforming the New Zealand Census of Population and Dwellings: issues, options, and strategy (published 2012).

There are three main reasons for transforming how the census is run:

  • the rising costs of running a traditional census
  • opportunities from new technologies
  • the increasing availability of alternative data sources.

The next census in 2018 is being significantly modernised. A key feature is encouraging people to respond using online forms.

See 2018 Census  

Stats NZ will report to government periodically, outlining progress and seeking decisions on future direction.

The 2015 Cabinet paper, Census transformation – A promising future, presents our progress on investigating future options for transforming the New Zealand census, beyond the modernised 2018 Census. It recommends that Stats NZ should actively work towards a future census based primarily on government administrative data, supported by redevelopment of its household surveys.

Research has shown this is a promising direction for the New Zealand census that would result in reduced costs, reduced burden for the public, and would make greater use of administrative data sources.

However, much uncertainty remains about the range and accuracy of data that can be provided. Continuing to meet critical information needs must underpin decisions on the future of the census. We need to do much more work and testing before being able to confidently recommend moving away from the current modernised census.

Latest information

Funding approved as part of Budget 2017

Funding for continuing the Census Transformation programme through to 2020 was approved as part of Budget 2017. This funding allows Stats NZ to continue to work towards delivering an informed recommendation to Cabinet on the future of New Zealand’s census by 2020. A key focus at present is developing a test coverage survey that will run alongside the 2018 Census, and being ready to apply a statistical model to estimate administratively derived populations. These estimates will be compared against the official 2018 population estimates and assessed against quality standards that define key customer needs.

The supporting 2016 Cabinet paper Census transformation progress update: Releasing the potential of government data provides an update on progress. Drawing on emerging insights obtained from the Census Transformation programme, it recommends a programme of work to improve the availability and quality of government data to maximise its use for a range of purposes, including a future census based on administrative data.

Next release of experimental series in September 2017

In September 2016, Stats NZ published the first experimental data series of national population estimates derived from the linked administrative data currently available in the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI). You can find the data and accompanying report at Experimental population estimates from linked administrative data.

The next release will be in September 2017 when the time series will be extended and detail expanded to include sub-national population estimates. In October 2017, we’ll release experimental statistics for ethnic populations derived from linked administrative data. These experimental series are designed to update users on progress regarding the quality of administrative data. We will again be seeking your feedback to support methodological development. 

The Census Transformation work programme: 2016–20

The Budget 2017 funding allows us to continue the work planned for the Census Transformation phase from 2016 to 2020:

1. Support work across government to improve the quality of key administrative data sources, especially in relation to core demographic variables provided by the census.

This work is integral to achieving the Government’s aspiration to gain greater value from its data. Improved quality and consistency of administrative data will improve the quality of advice ministers receive and provide more accurate information for service targeting and evaluation purposes. The Census Transformation provides the means to encourage and monitor steps taken by agencies to improve data quality and interoperability.

Quality improvements driven from the Census Transformation work also support other government investment in data such as the Integrated Data Infrastructure, the Social Sector Investment Change programme and the Government ICT Strategy and Action Plan to 2017.

2. Continue to develop and test the methods required to produce official population statistics from administrative data.

Multiple administrative sources need to be brought together to construct a New Zealand resident population. However, we do not expect administrative data alone to produce sufficiently accurate population statistics. We will need to combine it with a coverage survey and innovative statistical modelling.

As these methods are being developed we will publish results in an experimental series, to update users on our progress with administrative data, and to invite feedback to help us improve our methods. The 2018 Census and coverage survey will allow us to test the ability of the new approach to provide population statistics of sufficient quality.

3. Continue to explore new data sources and scope the redevelopment of Stats NZ’s household survey programme.

While for some census variables administrative data may be at least as good as survey responses, investigations to date show that administrative data from government does not provide a sufficient range of attribute information to meet customer needs. We will explore using commercial and other emerging data sources.

We will need a large-scale attribute survey to fill the gaps in providing social and economic information for small areas and small population groups. This would become part of a redeveloped suite of Stats NZ household surveys. Combining data from administrative sources and sample surveys allows us to re-use administrative data, while continuing to provide the information required by customers. There may still be limitations in the very detailed information currently available from the census, and further work is needed to confirm customer needs for small-area and small-population data.

Census transformation research papers – latest publications

Research papers describing detailed investigations are listed below. These include essential information requirements for future censuses identified during consultation with core customers, and investigations into the quality of administrative data sources. We'll add new papers as they become available.

Experimental population estimates from linked administrative data: 2017 release (October 2017)
This paper describes a second series of experimental population estimates derived from linked administrative data, including updated national-level estimates, as well as population estimates for subnational areas for the first time.

Comparing income information from census and administrative sources (October 2016)
This paper compares information about ‘total personal income’ and ‘sources of personal income’ from the 2013 Census with experimental estimates produced from the tax sources available in Stats NZ’s Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI).

Experimental population estimates from linked administrative data: methods and results (September 2016)
This paper describes the method for producing a series of experimental population estimates for New Zealand by age and sex, derived from linked administrative data in the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI).

Comparison of ethnicity information in administrative data and the census (June 2016)
This paper compares ethnicity data from the 2013 Census with the ethnicity information collected by administrative sources currently available in Stats NZ’s Integrated Data Infrastructure.

Identifying Māori populations using administrative data: A comparison with the census (June 2016)
This paper looks at the potential for administrative sources to provide information requirements for and about Māori that a census must provide, regardless of how the census is conducted in the future.

Identifying the New Zealand resident population in the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) (April 2016)
This paper describes a method for determining who is a resident in New Zealand at a given point in time using the linked administrative data sources held in Stats NZ’s Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI).

View all census transformation research papers

Contact us

Email censustransformation@stats.govt.nz for more information.

Page updated 2 October 2017

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