One way the former National Government saved money was to "go digital" and to make use of online interaction with the public to replace face-to-face dealings in as many ways as it could devise.

This strategy meant, for instance, that Immigration New Zealand closed just about all of its offices so that any interface with people who had to renew visas had little choice but the online option.

This ignored that fact that many of our older and poorer citizens have neither the money, the training nor experience to use online facilities.

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In the case of immigration matters, many were driven to immigration consultants at some expense to conduct the business that would have occurred over a counter with a real human at no cost just a few short years ago.

This government love-affair with online activity could reach idiotic proportions. Last year a Corrections region published a contract requiring the use of an online drivers' licensing programme in jails where computers are few and far between and online access is banned.

The Howard League, in its Driving Offenders Initiative, collected email addresses from participants in its West Auckland programme and discovered that out of the first 120 people who were referred to us, only three had such addresses.

The people entering the Howard League programmes are almost by definition not well off but are representative of an underclass that has been growing steadily since the reforms of the 1980s.

If you add to this group the older Kiwis who simply haven't mastered the now ubiquitous computers and rely on methods like letters instead of email, the calamity that was revealed this week with the Census was a disaster just waiting to happen.

In case you missed the announcement (which was probably intended to be missed), this year's Census had the lowest participation rate in 50 years, with one in 10 Kiwis missing from the count.

This is double the number who failed to complete the forms in the 2013 Census and compromises the most crucially important statistical exercise the New Zealand government ever undertakes.

The magnitude of this disaster becomes apparent when you realise that it's the Census information that predicts or heavily influences a whole range of outcomes, from the number of seats in Parliament, electoral boundaries and the money for District Health Boards and schools.


This amounts to an industrial-strength fiasco and it has huge ramifications.

The creation of new parliamentary boundaries which should have begun in November this year will now be put off until April of next year.

This alone trashes the timetables political parties have traditionally operated in the selection of candidates in the lead-up to the next general election.

Like those who are referred to the Howard League for its driving offenders programme, the people who will have been missed by this failure of design and execution will be disproportionately Maori, Pacifica, and poor.

I saw a television interview conducted in what looked like Moerewa, a poor and predominantly Maori town in the Far North, where the Maori interviewee said that hardly anyone he knew was online in the home.

My suspicion is that the comfortably off middle-class Wellington public servants who designed what has been an abject failure have only just worked out that $60 a month for an online connection is simply not priority spending when you struggle to put food on the table and pay your rent.


We are told by StatsNZ that it will make up the shortcomings of this Census by "backfilling" information from previous censuses and "other sources".

This is arrant nonsense. The whole point is to get an accurate snapshot of the country at a given point in time. It's absurd to suggest that five-year-old information is going to suffice.

The failure of StatsNZ's "digital first" strategy in my view means that we have no choice but to repeat the whole exercise using tried and proven methods if places like Moerewa, which need every cent they can get, are not to be short-changed.

In my view, StatsNZ CEO Liz MacPherson should resign, having failed by her own standards.

The blurb on her department's website says: "Liz is passionate about evidence-driven decision-making and sees her role is to ensure New Zealand decision-makers at all levels have access to quality information".

As the boss, she would have authorised this piece of flannel which the department has patently not lived up to. There is no evidence that everyone has access to, or can use, online systems, and the information generated by Census 2108 lacks quality.


The large group of Maori MPs in the three governing parties should be leaning hard on their leaders to junk the flawed data and run the whole thing again.

• Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.