February 22, 2023

2023 Census

Why we have a Census

On 7 March 2023, Statistics New Zealand will undertake the 2023 Census.

This will be the 35th New Zealand Census carried out since the first one in 1851. The second Census took place in 1881, and has been undertaken every five years since then. Although major events, such as the Great Depression (1931), World War II (1941), and the Christchurch earthquakes (2011), have seen the Census planned in those years cancelled or postponed; for the first two events the Census was cancelled in 1931 and 1941, and for the Christchurch earthquakes the Census was postponed for two years to 2013.

While prior to 2013 the Census was paper based, the 2013 and 2018 Censuses incorporated the ability to be completed online. This will also be possible in the imminent 2023 Census. The 2018 Census was to be a full online Census, where people were very strongly encouraged to complete it online, with only limited supplies of paper forms. This resulted in lower responses received in total. The 2023 Census, as a consequence, will be similar to the 2013 round and people will be able to choose between completing it online or on a paper form.

So, given the cost (the 2023 Census has a budget of $126 million), why does New Zealand undertake a Census every five years? 

The Census provides a highly detailed understanding of all the people in New Zealand, and where they are living, as at the Census date. It is therefore a complete and detailed picture of life in our cities, towns, rural areas, and outer islands. In addition, undertaking a Census enables the gathering of critical information on the structure of households and families, as well as on topics such as culture and identity, including gender identity, qualifications held, languages spoken, housing, disabilities, and how we travel to work and school. 

Gathering this data from everyone in New Zealand allows a broad range of decision makers in central government agencies, local councils, iwi, community groups, and even businesses, to understand the structure and make-up of the New Zealand population. It also enables good policy development and planning for future services, in terms of where the services are required, and who the services will be required for.

How is Census data used?

As already noted, data from the Census is used by a broad range of central government agencies, local councils, iwi, community groups, and other organisations. Also, Census data is used by the Electoral Commission to determine the numbers and boundaries of the national electorates, both general and Māori. Given the timing of the 2023 Census and the current date of the 2023 general election, data from the 2023 Census will be utilised for elections from 2024 onwards.

The most common use of Census data across government agencies, both local and national, is to help determine funding requirements for community services/amenities, as well as for health, education, transport projects, and other similar services. For most types of funding, Census data provides a demographic breakdown of an area, enabling government agencies to determine the required level of funding for services provided such as hospitals and schools. In addition, for transport funding, Census data can highlight patterns of how people travel to work or to school, and therefore the level of road funding or public transport funding that is required in an area.

Census data provides an extraordinarily rich and robust dataset for researchers across various disciplines to utilise. The Census collects data from almost everyone, rather than from a sample of people, and includes data variables not found in other data sources, such as gender identity, iwi affiliation, occupation, qualifications held, religious affiliation, and household and family structures. As an example of research able to be undertaken using Census data, you can see some interesting examples completed by BERL using the 2018 Census.