The political furore over the embarrassing website outage on census night appears to have had a silver lining with the Bureau of Statistics receiving about 1.5 million more completed census forms than expected at this stage of the collection process.
Over 6 million of Australia’s 9 million households have now submitted a census form online or by post, well above the 4.5 million responses the bureau had anticipated receiving at this point.
“We actually thought that as few as 50 per cent of the Australian population would respond before we needed to start visiting households,” the census head, Duncan Young, told Fairfax in his first extended interview since census night.
“We are ahead of our original plan, which is quite remarkable when you consider the fact that we did not have our online form available for 40 hours, including for some of our peak period on census night.”
The bureau copped a barrage of criticism after it was forced to shut down the census website just after 7.30 pm on August 9 to “ensure the integrity of the data.”
The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, expressed frustration that the outage had inconvenienced millions of Australians and warned “heads will roll” over the incident.
But the blaze of publicity about the website shutdown, along with media reports about privacy concerns prior to the census, has resulted in an “unusually high level” of public awareness.
“That has probably been reflected in the level of public responses early on in what was designed as a six week follow-up period,” Mr Young said.
In previous census collections officials have visited households before and soon after census night. But because most submissions will be made online this time, the bureau has adopted a different strategy with officials only starting most household follow-ups from today, almost a fortnight after census night.
“The number of people that need to be visited is actually going to be less than we originally anticipated,” Mr Young said. “Two weeks into this six-week period close to two-thirds of the country has already have competed and returned forms which puts us in a really good position.”
Mr Young said officials will visit households “multiple times” if necessary over coming weeks to facilitate the census collection.
Some experts are worried census privacy concerns and the confusion created by the website outage will reduce overall census participation or affect the accuracy of responses.
But Mr Young said the bureau was on track to deliver “a high quality census” despite the problems.
“We’ve got a more sophisticated way of following up this census than in the past,” he said. “Because we have moved to a more digital basis for this census we are able to identify in real time different areas around the country where response rates might not be as good. We are able to then put additional effort into those areas to support the response.”
The 2016 census was forecast to cost $470 million over five years and Mr Young said the bureau was “not expecting a significant change to overall costings” despite the website outage.
It is compulsory for households to complete the census but there is no penalty for late submission.
“The only instances where people get prosecuted are when there is active defiance against participating in the census,” Mr Young said. “Last census we…only needed to prosecute around 100 people across the whole nation and that’s likely to still be the case this census.”