The 2016 census return rate remains below 90% as the Australian Bureau of Statistics pulls out temporary staff and moves permanent staff onto the job of trying to establish a statistically useful return rate, according to multiple sources within the census collection workforce and the ABS.
With the return rate stubbornly stuck well below the 90% identified as required to ensure the census provides a reliable basis for demographic data, the ABS last week entered “crisis” mode and ordered field officers — temporary staff employed only for the period of the census — to increase the level of harassment of citizens, including those who had already completed and lodged their forms.
This week, three separate sources have told Crikey, the ABS has stood down field staff before their contracts had ended and swung permanent staff into trying to up the level of returns. “I have just been called by my supervisor with an instruction to cease all work and hit ‘phase complete’ on the provided app,” one collector, who had another full round of visits (the fifth of five) still to go, told us. “The remainder of my contract would be paid out. He had been given instructions that the ABS was going to take care of the remaining workload.”
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“The ABS regularly makes procedural changes to its census field operations as the census progresses, in response to field activities and operational intelligence,” a spokesperson for the ABS told Crikey. “Deploying additional ABS staff to the field, or redeploying field and other ABS staff to different areas to help households participate are both common tactics in any census field operations and are part of our responsive strategies.”
This appears to confirm what sources have told Crikey, that permanent ABS staff are being deployed instead of collection staff to address a low return rate just one week from the final date for collections, September 23. “Our whole team was stood down today as the bureau investigates why there is such a low rate of returns,” another field officer told us, saying staff had been told “they [the ABS] are going to ‘flood’ the area with permanent ABS staff who will now conduct the collection phase in our stead.” According to another source within the ABS, approximately 70 “emergency field officers” from the ABS’ Canberra headquarters have been deployed to areas with significant non-compliance problems.
“The ABS continuously monitors response rates, and identifies and adjusts the number of occupied and unoccupied dwellings,” the bureau said. “This operational information forms part of the decision making process for adaptive strategies, which are commonly implemented in the final stages of the field operation when the ABS uses every available method to get the final households to respond.”
The ABS advised Crikey last week that one in five households still had not lodged their census forms. According to former ABS head Bill McLennan — a high-profile critic of the ABS’ decision to retain the names and addresses of Australians to establish lifelong data linkage codes — the ABS needs a return rate of 90% to ensure the exercise can provide reliable data. Internal sources say that despite a late push by the ABS to pursue recalcitrants and late filers, the return rate this week remains between 85% and 90%. The return rate in the last census, in 2011, was over 96%.
The on-the-ground push is partly driven by the fact that, because of privacy concerns and the census night debacle in which the ABS took its own site offline, the online participation rate was far below the expected level of 65% of the entire country — in fact, below 50% and not going any higher. According to staff on the ground, capital city high-rise apartment dwellings are also proving a nightmare for collectors — although the ABS should have been aware of this challenge, since its own building approvals data shows non-house dwelling construction has more than doubled to over 10,000 a month or more in the years since 2011.