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Government statistician falls on sword after census review

Tuesday 13th August 2019

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Government statistician Liz MacPherson has resigned after the release of an independent review of New Zealand’s 2018 census.

“As leader of this organisation, I take full responsibility for the shortfalls identified in the report,” MacPherson said in a statement. She will remain in the role until the end of the year.

Low participation rates last year have delayed the results from census, and forced the agency to plug gaps in the data using administrative information from other arms of government. In April, the government pledged an extra $10.4 million to assist preparations for the 2023 census.

The independent reviewers were asked to consider the design, implementation, and operation of last year's survey, with a focus on participation in, and the coverage of, the census. 

Stats NZ embarked on a "significant change journey" with the 2018 census, according to the review. It noted the changes in approach were necessary to combat the increased costs of conducting a traditional census, and in response to pressure to remain relevant as well as improve the quality and timeliness of census outputs.

However, as "reviewers point out, the basic model we used for the 2018 Census was sound. Rather, it was the implementation that fell short," said MacPherson. 

The review found leadership at a programme level lacked strategic direction and effective programme management. 

"With little flexibility or contingencies built into the budget or the planning schedule, the risks began to mount as the programme encountered challenges with IT system delivery, tackled the implications of the North Canterbury earthquake, and implemented deviations from the planned collection model," it said. 

According to McPherson, Stats NZ was "too optimistic, placed too much emphasis on the online census, and did not have robust contingency plans in place for when things started to go wrong." 

As the reviewers said "we got some things wrong at a time of great change during the switch to a more digitally-focused data collection approach. I accept the findings. We let ourselves and New Zealand down," she said. 

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said he supports MacPherson’s decision to resign. She has stood up and been accountable in owning the report’s findings, he said.  He has asked her to stay on as government statistician until Christmas.

“I want her to stay on because she is the best person to finish the remediation work,” said Hughes.

The State Services Commission will start the recruitment process for a new government statistician in the coming weeks.

Stats NZ will be releasing the first official 2018 Census results on Sept. 23, 11 months later than planned. 

(BusinessDesk)



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