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Digital-first proved Stats NZ's undoing

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 13 August 2019, 4:29 pm

Government Statistician and Stats NZ CEO Liz MacPherson has today resigned over her role in leading the 2018 Census, which saw a reduction in participation rates. As a result, the release of Census 2018 data has been significantly delayed as Stats NZ looks to augment the dataset from other sources.

MacPherson's resignation follows the release of a 96-page independent report into how Census 2018 was carried out. At the heart of the matter was the focus on 'digital first'. An almost single-minded vision that framed every part of the decision making.

The report's authors Murray Jack and Connie Graziadei provide the detail to what was obvious to outsiders, as noted in a Techblog last year: "Looking from the outside, it seems to me that Stats NZ overestimated the rate of digital adoption among New Zealanders and rolled out a campaign that was online-first. There were a number of articles in the media in the run-up to the census with people complaining they didn't know how to access forms."

In the report's executive summary, through to its list of lesson's learned and right up to its final pages, the authors make reference to an almost blinkered approach which prioritised digital adoption and a good technology experience. Unfortunately, this was at the expense of participation rates.

"Despite the fact that information made available during collection operations showed concerning overall response patterns for individuals (although online was tracking well), management was slow to react. Several groups raised this issue during our interviews. It is our view that the focus on online responses and the overly optimistic view of 'Stay the course. The paper will come,' led to insufficient action being taken at the appropriate time, resulting in a failure to meet response rate targets," the report notes.

This was expressed in the post-Census press release issued by Stats NZ in June 2018, which trumpeted the online adoption rates as being higher than the target, before going on to mention that response rates were down. It's now been revealed that in some population groups there is a significant reduction on the previous Census, with the response rate among Māori at 68% and Pacific people 65%, down from 88.5% and 88.3% in Census 2013.

The digital-first approach meant that the traditional method of carrying out the Census - Stats NZ representatives visiting houses and handing out paper surveys - was greatly reduced both in the number of people employed to door-knock and the print run. Instead Stats NZ relied more on marketing and PR campaigns to raise public awareness and an online method to collect the data. As MacPherson concludes in the Stats NZ release announcing her resignation -the model was sound, but the implementation fell short.

Like a Greek tragedy, the 2018 Census was scuttled by hubris - the vision to be digital-first was its fatal flaw.

There were other factors outlined in the report that contributed to the failures, but these seemed to me to be more in line with the kind of issues that might crop up in every major campaign. There was however one outstanding event, the Kaikoura earthquake in November 2016, which is worth noting. It caused huge disruption, and it was handled superbly.

"With the implications of the earthquake, staff in the census programme essentially operated in crisis mode beginning in November 2016. It took several weeks to re-establish essential support services, set up new office facilities, and establish ways of working that could be effective given the now dispersed organisation. The Data Centre was devastated, rendering IT systems inoperable for an extended period. It took several months for all systems to be stabilised. The recovery must be recognised as a massive task and a considerable achievement by Statistics NZ management and staff," the report notes.

You can read the full report here


Comments

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Malcolm Stayner 14 August 2019, 12:56 am

Governance was also issue being overly complex and the Senior Responsible Owner role (SRO) being held by three different managers during the project's life cycle. Since the SRO was the key decision maker this had significant implications.

Malcolm Stayner 14 August 2019, 12:57 am

Governance was also issue being overly complex and the Senior Responsible Owner role (SRO) being held by three different managers during the project's life cycle. Since the SRO was the key decision maker this had significant implications.


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