Senior Australian Bureau of Statistics officials have warned staff of a “crisis” over the rate of return of censuses and demanded collectors increase the level of harassment of Australians, including those who can furnish evidence they have already lodged it.

Sources within the bureau have told of an extraordinary change in policy yesterday by ABS executives. On Monday, census field officers were told in writing that they did not need to return to a dwelling that had advised that the census has been completed. This included anyone who had produced a receipt number for their online census submission or who said they had done so, or who said they had posted the census form. However, citing a “crisis” in the rate of returns, ABS management yesterday told staff that they were now required to make a further visit. Householders who asked why were to be told that “it is still being investigated and [they are] still on their list requiring a visit”.

That’s despite multiple instances of people complaining on social media that collectors had continued to pursue them despite their having submitted, and even of collectors complaining that their data on who had submitted forms was out of date.

[Keane: why you should boycott the census]

The internal admission of a “crisis” within the ABS about the census contradicts its public insistence that all is well with the census and that, if anything, return rates are ahead of where they were in previous censuses.

Under the Census and Statistics Act, census collectors have extraordinary powers to enter any building except immediate residential premises without a warrant. While there is no legislative power to physically enter residential premises, people have reported on social media collectors trying to open locked doors and, in at least one case, entering a rural residence while the resident was absent.

There is also continuing confusion internally at the ABS, as well as in the real world, about when exactly census forms become overdue. Last Saturday, the ABS’ census manager Duncan Young instructed staff that they were to correct people who believe they have until September 23 to lodge forms:

“23rd September is the last day that the systems are open but responses will be overdue before then … if not completed we will need to proceed with formal procedures that can include fines.”

The ABS did not respond by deadline. A Senate Economics References committee inquiry into the debacle is currently underway; submissions are open for another two weeks.