The compliance cost to the community of the upcoming Census has been magnified by the anxiety its botched implementation is causing Australians (see this Fairfax report on Census chaos). It appears many elderly Australians have been surprised by the letters they have received about the Census. Given many of them are not on the internet, they have tried to request paper copies, only to have had trouble getting through to the ABS which has not properly resourced its call centre. This has caused many elderly people to worry about the possibility of a $180/day fine.
Also, based on the intense conversation the Census generated yesterday in the office where I am based, it has had a productivity cost in workplaces across Australia. To make matters worse, due to privacy concerns through retention of identifying information and the linking of Census data to other data sets, it appears many Australians may boycott the Census, raising large concerns about the integrity of the data. The ABS has made a huge mistake here and should have avoided raising any doubts about the confidentiality and protection of Census data.
The ABS has clearly botched the implementation of the 2016 Census. It will be important for it and the Government, which is ultimately responsible for the Census, to learn some lessons. Obviously, dropping plans to retain personal information and linking Census data to other data sets would be a good start. Also, we should move away from having a Census every five years and have one every ten years, as is done in the US and UK. This would save significant amounts of taxpayers’ money, given the cost of the Census is estimated at around $400 million, and should allow for a better resourced and hopefully better managed Census, with the ABS able to take advantage of the longer lead time. Indeed, the ABS had previously proposed moving to a Census every ten years.
Last year, The Australian reported the ABS wanted to skip the 2016 Census so it could spend the money upgrading its old computer systems (see ABS wants Census every ten years). The ABS should have been listened to then. I agree with the ABS’s view that the Census is an inefficient and costly way of collecting the wide range of data that it is currently collecting. We could have a less frequent Census and use some of the money saved to boost sample sizes and the range of questions in household surveys, such as the Labour Force Survey which gives us the unemployment rate. We still need a Census from time-to-time, because its population data help the ABS target its surveys and develop population-level estimates, but we should be able to manage with one every ten years.