Danielle van Dalen
Imagine if you could influence funding for the healthcare you receive, or for the schools your children attend, with just a few strokes of your pen.
That’s what the census does, along with other things like help set the size of Parliament, and that’s why it was so concerning to hear last week that 1 in 6 New Zealand residents didn’t complete the 2018 census questionnaire when the results were released.
For most of us, the idea of a census isn’t exactly sexy.
Many of us fill out our forms without understanding why we’re doing it or what difference it makes, but the information it provides is part of the lifeblood of policy-making, service planning, and resource allocation.
Census data is used to determine who we are, how many of us there are, and how public services can best do their job and manage competing interests.
Population-based funding formulas, for example, use information about the population size and makeup of a particular area to determine the breakdown of funding for District Health Boards.
Census data is also used to determine the weighting of school deciles which impacts the funding that schools receive.
The results, population breakdown, and forecasting are also necessary for policy-makers and local government to evaluate major projects and determine which infrastructure or project should be the highest priority.
New Electorate planned
Even the number and boundaries of electorate seats are determined by census results.
For example, population growth has meant the introduction of a new electorate for the North Island.
The 2018 census results have barely been released and we’re already seeing how gaps in the data affect essential activities.
For example, National have criticised forming the new electorate based on insufficient data, low Māori turnout and a potential misrepresentation of the population is leading to fears about loss of funding for the Gisborne based Tairāwhiti DHB, and late release of census data has meant the “recalculation of school deciles“ will be based on outdated 2013 census results and school funding might not accurately represent the needs of a given region.
It’s essential then that New Zealand responds to the flaws of the 2018 census. Much has been said about government failure, including arguments about inadequate funding, the administrative flaws of government agencies charged with collecting census data, and the weaknesses of the online collection process, leading to the recent resignation of Government Statistician Liz MacPherson.
But the rest of us also need to take seriously our own role and responsibility in data collection and fill out our census forms.
We need to pay attention to, understand, and participate in the process. If we appreciate and understand what the census is for we’ll be much more motivated to participate and encourage others to do the same.
The Government needs to play its part, but so do we. Statistics, data collection, and census results might not be sexy, but we can’t expect the government to serve us well if we don’t give it the information it needs.
Danielle van Dalen is a Researcher at the Auckland-based Maxim Institute.