The wash up part 3 (or, the Census, part 2)

I posted some thoughts about the Census in mid-August when we got back home.  There have been some recent developments on this yarn which bear recording so here is another post.

First up I will say that I worked for ABS for 30 years, of which the last 10 were in the Census area and I then put in another 5 years on Census work with other statistical organisations.  I recognise that things have changed at the detailed level since I left ABS in 2001but the issue of concern to me at present - response rate in rural residential areas - should not have been affected by those changes.

What happened

We were away from home on Census night so filled in the Census form at Rockhampton QLD and posted it back at the first post box we saw thereafter (Boggabilla, about 800km South in NSW).  I had removed our mail box while we were away, to prevent junk mail being dumped therein).  A few days after returning I found a Census form in the replaced mail box, but no way of showing that our house was unoccupied on Census night. I recycled the form.  A week later I was taking the recycling bin up and met a puzzled looking Census dude: I now realise he was working out why there were now 3 letter boxes where there had been 2!  I explained the situation and he drove off.

When delivering our Community Newsletter last weekend, about 3.5 weeks after Census day, I found that 15% of letter boxes were clogged with Census forms. In some cases an accompanying letter marked in red "Final Notice" was visible so they clearly weren't the original forms that had been uncollected by the residents for 3 weeks.  (There may have been other forms inside bigger letter boxes so 15% non response is the minimum.)

I wondered if the ABS had changed procedures so that dropping the form, and all subsequent reminders, in the letter box was the new process.  So I checked with ABS and have been told the Collector should have visited the house for delivery and as the call back.  So it seems we are looking at a Collector who didn't follow the rules.

I have spoken to or had online contact with a few other people in this area, other parts of Carwoola and some in Wamboin and the Flat and the picture seems to vary.  In my Collection District (CD) no one got visited.  Some people in other CDs got visited but quite a few didn't.

What should have happened

In our more sparsely settled area the Collector should have visited the house, and if someone was there, noted down some details about likely number of occupants on Census night and left a form.  (In the past they would have made two tries to deliver the form before Census night.)

  • If people filled in the form on line they would have got a receipt number and the collector would be told which houses had completed.  
  • If people completed the form offline the bar code on the form would be scanned on receipt and again the collector would be told which houses had completed.  (Note that in our case that would be the collector for a caravan park near Rockhampton.)
The Collector would then make reminder visits to those households which hadn't submitted the form.

In the big cities the codes for online completion were mailed out and the Collectors only contacted those who hadn't completed the form online.

Why the difference: because it is known that Australia Post mailing lists for areas outside major urban areas don't cover all dwellings as (eg people have city mail boxes near their work).  So clearly a Census of mail boxes doesn't work.

In the past, part of a Collector's pay was based upon the number of forms they collected: a great incentive to get as many as possible.  I have no idea what the arrangement is now.

The importance of Collector contact

I noted above that the Collector gets some details (eg dwelling vacant on Census night).  They would also ascertain if there was more than one dwelling (eg house plus granny flat) on the block and should notice any dwellings that don't have a letter box (eg ours).

It also allows the Collector to explain the importance of completing the form and makes it a more sociable thing to do.

In all my work on Censuses the crucial aspect of a mail out/mail back Census (or delivery/mail back) is the intensive follow-up phase when a human being being comes to pick up the form (or at least to remind you to complete it and mail it back).  This has been the total failure in our area.

I suspect that the main reason there were so many forms still outstanding in this area last weekend was that there was no personal contact with the Collector, particularly after Census night.  (Possibly the problems on line on Census night had some impact, but at least people out here - unlike in Canberra - had a hard copy form as a fall back.)

Where does this end up?

It depends upon the extent to which our area is typical.  

My initial concern was that we just had a Collector who didn't follow the rules.  This would mean that our area would be underrepresented in any resource allocation - of which there are a lot - based on Census results. That led to me sending round an exhortation for people in this area to complete forms.

However it now seems that the problem is more widespread so it could have implications across the whole country.


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