Statistics New Zealand’s potential Census emergency

Some time ago I made mention of a major failing of Statistics New Zealand in their internal operation and failure to successfully run the 2018 New Zealand Census. In April 2019 the Chief Statistician Liz McPherson admitted 1 in every 7 New Zealanders failed to complete the compulsory survey that happens every 5 years and is essential for planning government services, spending priorities and performance targets.

At that time it was discovered that the agency responsible for collecting statistical data on New Zealanders had filled a hole in its finances by funnelling $10 million from insurance payouts and capital. Upon realising that it was short, S.N.Z. asked for another $20 million for the 2019-20 financial year, which was to fill in a funding short fall of 15%.

Now it has been found out that S.N.Z. actually needs considerably more money – between $33-$43 million more each year for subsequent years. As a result the Minister for Statistics, James Shaw is having to ask the Treasurer Grant Robertson for millions more in funding that no doubt both of them would have hoped they would not have to fork out.

If the money is not stumped up, S.N.Z. has a list of ten products it was going to cull or severely restrict. They included surveys for research and development, land occupancy/transfers, energy use among others. This would affect planning and spending priorities for a multitude of agencies and items in the budget.

Allowing it to continue suggests lax responsibility by the Minister of Statistics in overseeing the agency. It suggests that the incompetence of Ms McPherson is going to be tolerated. Sure it might not be the biggest mismanagement crisis we have had in a New Zealand government department, but after telling the Government a second time in less than a year that its financial problem is worse than it thought, can we really be expected to trust Ms McPherson and her senior S.N.Z. staff to know what is going on?

Ms McPherson is contracted to S.N.Z. until the end of 2021, but one has to ask whether that should still be the case. If priority targets were set and closely monitored with the threat of sacking hanging over her head, could we rely on Ms McPherson to display the necessary honesty when she originally tried to hide the issue? I am not wholly sure we can.

Mr Shaw needs to make a couple of tough decisions and he needs to make them quickly. The first one is whether Ms McPherson is worth the risk that goes with forking tens of millions of dollars more in terms of making sure that they do not end up being wasted. The second is – assuming the full extent of the problem has now been revealed – whether the data provided from the Census by those who did manage to complete is enough to fend of an emergency Census.

Drastic? Yes. Unnecessary? I hope so, but if agencies on whose well being people depend such as M.S.D. and the Ministry of Health suddenly find themselves unavoidably short on critical data, do we have a choice?

Possibly not.

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