Census collectors do their rounds
Census collectors do their rounds

There’s been some interesting follow-up to our revelation yesterday that the Australian Bureau of Statistics is panicking about the rate of return of censuses and telling collectors in the field to step up their harassment of people believed to have not lodged them.

The ABS belatedly got back to us with a long response that we’re happy to run in full. First, the ABS denied that executives had used the word “crisis”, which our sources say has indeed been used internally. Secondly, it said:

“The ABS often makes procedural changes to its Census field operations. Adaptive procedures are common practice in the Census, and an important part of delivering Australia’s largest logistical exercise and getting a full and accurate count of the population.

“During an operation the size of the Census, there will inevitably be a small number of households that have already completed their Census who receive reminder materials or are visited by a Census Field Officer. The most common reason these visits occur is the delay between posting a completed paper form and that form being received at our Secure Data Capture Centre. This can take up to 10 working days, but is usually much quicker. There can be other reasons which the ABS investigates.

“If a person who has completed the Census is contacted by a Census Field Officer, they should let them know they have already completed their form.”

(Which many people have done, to no avail).

According to the bureau, “Final Reminder letters will be issued prior to the online form closing on Friday, 23 September. We ask anyone with a completed paper form to send it back to the ABS in the blue Reply Paid Envelope no later than the 18 September.” And on that vexed issue of how censuses can be “overdue” if the closing date is September 23, the ABS takes a rather extreme position: “Census night was Tuesday, 9 August. Census forms are therefore now due.”

According to the ABS, it has received “over 7.5 million household forms (more than 80 per cent of households)” so far. We’re not sure 80% is looking too flash a month on from the census, which needs to have about 95% returns to be useful. Meanwhile, Crikey readers have been offering their own stories about harassment by collectors.

“Thought we were being over paranoid when we photographed us putting the census forms in the post box but after two visits from the ABS saying we haven’t submitted the census I’m glad we did.”

“Two nights ago a man who said he was from the census office knocked very loudly on the front door. When I questioned what he wanted he said you have not completed your census forms and now you are in trouble. I advised him politely that we had until 23.9.2016 and he immediately said that is a lie and after I again reminded him that we had until the 23.9.2016 he said well that was mistake and you must complete the forms now … He was a very rude individual.

Finally, another ABS source reports that the ABS has now pulled from its internal workspace system census manager Duncan Young’s advice on approaching non-respondents. Perhaps the ABS wasn’t happy about the way it was ending up in Crikey?

Peter Fray

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