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green spiky bubbles and an envelope with the words '7 march'. it's giving 'exciting', it's giving out 'enter the unique code on the formyou were sent in the mail'
The census is on 7th March, but there’s no need to wait until then to fill out the forms. (Image: Bianca Cross)

SocietyFebruary 28, 2023

Making sense of the 2023 census

green spiky bubbles and an envelope with the words '7 march'. it's giving 'exciting', it's giving out 'enter the unique code on the formyou were sent in the mail'
The census is on 7th March, but there’s no need to wait until then to fill out the forms. (Image: Bianca Cross)

Mark it in your diaries: Aotearoa’s census night is 7 March 2023. Here’s everything you need to know – and why you should care. 

What is a census? 

A census is an information-gathering exercise run by a state in order to find out information about the people who live there. In New Zealand, it’s held every five years – always on a Tuesday in March – and everyone from Cape Reinga to Rakiura gets to take part. At its most basic level, the census merely counts the number of people who live somewhere, but most states take the opportunity to gather other demographic data too, such as about languages spoken, income levels, household size and ethnicity. Information is, of course, intensely political: censuses have sparked a number of controversies around the world, whether that’s over the New Zealand government failing to fully include Māori in the 2018 census, India still not beginning the 2021 census, or fears in Nigeria that a census will increase tension between ethnic and religious groups. 

Censuses have been part of bureaucratic organisations for millennia. Ancient clay tablets from the Babylonian empire show a census taking place around 3800 BC, and a census was part of one of the most significant inciting events in history – according to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem only because his parents had travelled there to be counted by the Roman empire. 

Who has to do it?

Everyone who is in Aotearoa New Zealand on census night, including visiting celebrities like Harry Styles, has to complete the census; the website notes that this includes people in hotels, on boats, and on all islands (excluding Tokelau and the Cook Islands). 

Censuses are different from any other kind of survey in that they attempt to gather data about everyone in a population, whether you live in Whakatāne or Karamea. Without this information, it would be impossible to know if other data is “representative” at all. For Statistics New Zealand and other data gatherers, such as companies that conduct political polls, the census helps them to know whether their smaller surveys are truly representative of the wider New Zealand population. 

How do I take part? 

Census packs have been being delivered to homes around the country since 13 February. Each pack will contain information about how to do the census, including a unique code to access the online forms; many will have a paper version too. If you want a paper version, you can order forms here. You can fill out the forms any time from now until the night of 7 March, as long as you are filling it out for the address where you will be that night. If you’re visiting your cousins in New Plymouth on that day, for instance, but you want to do the census now, you’ll need to use the access codes for their household, not your normal residence. People in non-permanent locations, ie camping in a camping ground, will need to fill out the form delivered to that location. This is meant to ensure that no one gets counted twice, or doesn’t get counted at all.

elederly whit woman and brown man in a hoodie look at a sheet of paper with a tapa cloth pattern in the bacground
Filling out the 2018 census in Wellington (Photo: Lee-Anne Duncan)

 What happens if I don’t do it? Or if Harry Styles doesn’t do it?

The Data and Census Act 2022 requires that everyone in New Zealand on census day fills out the census. This means that anyone who doesn’t take part is technically breaking a law. As an individual, if you don’t participate or if you fill out incomplete or untrue information, you can be fined up to $2,000 dollars. Don’t get confused between Waitangi (Northland) and Waitangi (Chatham Islands). 

As well as being legally required, the census is an opportunity to give the government information that can have a direct bearing on what happens in your community, as described below. 

womanin hi vis jacket putting a purple census form in a red lichen covered letterbox, it looks like a rainy day!
Census packs being delivered across the country (Image: Supplied/Stats NZ)

Why are censuses important?

At the most basic level, census data is used to show where money and resources should go in a country.

Information gathered from the census is a key for the government to make funding decisions. If the 2023 census shows an increase in the population in Henderson, for instance, then the government might use that information to pay for extra classrooms and teachers to be added to a school. Census information is also used to draw or redraw electorate boundaries, allocate healthcare funding, or determine new infrastructure projects. 

Because the information gathered by a census is publicly accessible, anyone in the community can use it to help figure out what their priorities are. On the census website, there are a number of examples of this: charity InsideOut talks about why census information helps it support rainbow rangatahi, the Vagahau Niue Trust used it to open a Niue language learning unit at Favona School, and Toitū Tairāwhiti Housing Limited worked with government to build needed new homes. Censuses also provide invaluable data to historians and researchers who want to study how New Zealand is changing. 

Is anything different about the 2023 census? 

The 2018 census was considered by many a debacle. Due, in part, to underfunding, the government took a digital-first approach, meaning that thousands of people who weren’t familiar with the technology weren’t counted, especially Māori and Pasifika. About 68% of Māori and 65% of Pacific people responded, with the shortfall made up by extrapolating information held by other government agencies, such as the ministries of health, education, and social development. “I’m determined that this never happens again. We will do everything we can to ensure that response rates are much higher in the next census in 2023,” said government statistician Liz McPherson, in an apology issued by Stats New Zealand in 2019. 

To address some of these issues, the 2023 census has been given more funding for doorknocking. Every household has been given a census code for completing the census online, and 44% of households have been given paper forms as well, compared to 3% in 2018. There are also census support locations throughout the country, from Katikati to Naenae; more census workers; census events in communities to help people fill out their information; and the forms themselves are available in more languages. Māori have been given a stronger voice and more choices in the development of the census engagement programme. 

The 2023 census also includes new questions to gather more detailed data about gender, sexuality and disability. 

However, most questions from previous years, such as about ethnicity and household income, will be kept the same, which allows the government to track changes over extended periods of time. Read about all the changes here

Is this a breach of privacy? Will my information be kept securely? 

The census, like most data gathered by government agencies, must adhere to principles laid out in the Privacy Act 2020, including making sure that there is a clear purpose for all data gathered, and that individuals have a right to all data agencies or organisations hold about them. For the census specifically, no personally identifiable information will be released, and Statistics New Zealand staff and researchers working with the data must sign a lifetime statutory declaration of secrecy. Find out more about the Privacy Act 2020 here, and the privacy principles being used in the census specifically here

Because of the sensitivity of much of the data being gathered by the census, Statistics New Zealand says it will be stored securely using “physical, technical and administrative techniques”. Statistics New Zealand has a dedicated IT team that aims to keep all data submitted safe, from now into the future. Data gathered by the census is linked to data held by other government agencies, like the ministries of justice and transport, to make it richer and more useful. 

smiling woman with really great long brown hair that looks tidier than mine ever does has a big grin on her face and a phone displaying the trademark purple of the census website
Census forms can be completed online now (Image: Supplied – Stats NZ)

How will Cyclone Gabrielle impact the census? 

Yesterday, Deborah Russell and Meka Whaitiri, respectively the minister and associate minister of statistics, announced that the census period would be extended by up to eight weeks in areas affected by Cyclone Gabrielle, giving census collectors more time to reach those who have been most affected by the disaster. “Māori and iwi-led collections will play a crucial role in ensuring the 2023 census delivers increased response rates for Māori… iwi and communities on the ground have told us they want to continue census operations where it is safe and appropriate to do so,” said Whaitiri in a statement. 

Cyclone Gabrielle means that census information delivery has been delayed across Te Ika-a-Māui, particularly in Tairāwhiti and Te Matau-a-Māui, where many displaced people are not able to dwell in their normal households. These regions were particularly underserved by the 2018 census, making gathering information from here a particularly high priority. 

It’s not the first time a natural disaster has disrupted the census: in 2011, it was cancelled following the devastating Christchurch earthquake on February 22, and pushed back until 2013.

Does the public get to know what the census found?

After the census, Stats New Zealand will spend several months compiling and analysing the information. The 2023 census is a “combined census”, which means that information gathered through the census is merged with other data sources, like birth and death records, and information from past censuses to help fill in potential gaps in information. When that data has been stored and analysed, parts of it will be available to the public – not individual details or addresses, but big-picture demographic information, like population increases and religious data. To get a sense of what kinds of information will be available, you can see some of the results of the 2018 census here

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