Saturday, February 21, 2015

Bean counting not people counting: why the ABS can't afford the Census

Make other plans for census night next year. The Bureau of Statistics says it wants to cancel it, in part because of the "significant reporting burden" the census imposes on us. But its own burdens worry it the most.

The Rudd government hacked into the ABS budget just before the global financial crisis. It turned out to be an unwise time to do it. The bureau cut back the size of its retail survey and killed its job vacancies survey. Just at the time when the government needed to know whether its stimulus cheques were hitting the stores and keeping employers' doors open, the ABS found itself unable answer.

The cutbacks continued under Gillard and then under Abbott in the form of efficiency dividends. But it's hard to be more efficient when much of your work is manual, walking from door to door asking questions and finding an increasing proportion of the population not at home.

The bureau had planned a 'big bang' for census night 2016. It was to be the first predominantly electronic census, removing the need for much of the doorknocking. But the plan needed money and time to retool. With just 18 months to go until Census 2016, the project is woefully over budget and behind time. ABS has asked not to have to do it. If the Parliament doesn't release it from the obligation it'll be in serious trouble.

The bureau's problems are partly of its own making. And they're partly the fault of leaders from both sides of politics who haven't stopped squeezing.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

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. The ABS, not the Abbott government, is behind the plan to axe the 2016 census

. Blowing out our brains. Our census faces the axe

. Census 2016. Why the questions will be answers in themselves