Cheat sheet: Stats NZ CEO quits over census debacle

An independent review into the data shortfall in the first digital-driven census has seen the government statistician fall on her Y-axis, accepting the serious failures identified

What just happened?

Liz MacPherson, the chief executive of Stats NZ and official government statistician, announced that she would resign those roles at the end of the year, following the publication of the Independent Review of New Zealand’s 2018 census. “We let ourselves and New Zealand down,” she said.

Where did the census fall short?

The 2018 census, the first to be conducted under the “digital first” model, saw a 4.5% drop in the response rate – a story broken by The Spinoff in July last year. That prompted Stats NZ to draw on a bunch of other available data to plug the gaps, but it still left serious shortcomings. At the time Stats NZ told The Spinoff it was too early to say the 4.5% drop was reliable and that it was confident that it could nevertheless “accurately represent hard to reach groups”.

But?

But, as McPherson acknowledged in a press conference this morning, the response rate was “unacceptably low”, especially among Māori and Pasifika. It left, she said, “significant data gaps, far beyond what we’ve experienced before. These gaps put the delivery of the 2018 census results at serious risk.”

Are the results useless?

No, they remain very useful. As MacPherson explained, “It is good for key uses, for electoral boundaries, population projections and DHB funding.” But: “The fact remains that this level of remediation should not have been necessary.” And: “There are still data gaps. In particular for iwi affiliation data. This is a significant loss and one that I regret deeply.”

What went wrong?

The independent review found there was a disproportionate focus on the online collection of data, at the expense of ye olde IRL approach. As MacPherson put it, the project “as carried out on the ground did not stick to the original plan”. Stats NZ “did not have enough boots on the ground to knock on doors and talk to people face to face”.

There were insufficient contingency plans and management was slow to respond to problems. The delay in issuing results, and the manner by which those delays were communicated “led to stakeholder frustration and an erosion of trust”.

And, as MacPherson was keen to acknowledge: “We didn’t work closely, deeply, and in particular, early enough with Māori, Pasifika and other hard-to-count communities at the grassroots level.”

What are the implications for Māori of what has happened?

As Gabrielle Baker explains in this excellent piece, it raises important questions about whether the broader march towards open data is happening “without thinking through the implications and impacts on Māori rights and interests”.

Why is MacPherson not departing immediately?

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said he’d asked her to stay till the end of the year to complete the remediation work. He commended MacPherson for “taking personal accountability”. His mantra, he said, was: “Own it, fix it, learn from it, and stand up and be accountable. And that’s exactly what Ms MacPherson is doing here.”

What about the minister?

The minister for statistics, James Shaw, issued a statement in which he welcomed MacPherson acknowledging the “buck stops with her”. At a press conference, he said he welcomed the report and the resignation, but refused to be comment when asked whether he’d discussed the resignation with her in the leadup to the announcement.

National’s statistics spokesperson, Jian Yang, said MacPherson was right to stand down, but “she should not be a scapegoat for James Shaw whose failure to show leadership played a significant part in this mess … He should have asked more questions of his Statistics NZ leadership team and demanded better results from them.”

When do we at last get the results?

The first results will be released on September 23.

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Any other data points?

Yes. The independent review noted Stats NZ’s “change journey” and “less than optimal outcome”.

Should words like these stop?

Yes please.


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