How we plan to conduct the 2021 Census
The Census is a major exercise that takes around six years to plan, develop, test, implement, deliver, and disseminate the information collected.
Cycle of Census planning
The running of a Census is a continuous cycle. The planning of the 2021 Census commenced even before the ABS released 2016 Census data.
The ABS has already achieved significant milestones in preparation for the 2021 Census. As at September 2019, we had engaged suppliers for our online services and field staff recruitment. We have completed the consultation and testing to inform the 2021 Census topic recommendations.
Leading up to the Census, we will release our privacy impact assessment, build a strong community network to support participation and undertake significant field tests to ensure our processes and systems run smoothly.
The selection of topics to be included is a government decision. The ABS undertook extensive public consultation in 2018 and provided Government with an assessment of the priority and feasibility of the topic suggestions. The ABS received 450 submissions from government departments, private and not for profit organisations and members of the public. A report on this consultation can be found at: Census of Population and Housing: Topic Directions 2021.
Topic selection will be finalised in early 2020 and tabled in Parliament. The final topics will be released in a publication later the same year.
Since 1911, the number and range of topics covered by the Census has changed. These changes reflect our evolving society, the increasing diversity of our communities, and the need to inform planning for future services and infrastructure.
The 45 Census topics for questions asked in the 2016 Census have remained unchanged since the 2006 Census.
Decisions to change topics and the questions asked in the Census are not made lightly. The value of information to be gained through new topics needs to be considered against the time needed for people to answer more questions and the cost of processing and analysing the information collected. While topic changes can improve the information available to inform planning for a changing population, there is also the risk of reducing the value of long-term data sets that have been built over decades.
The 21st century digital service
Reaching every person who is in Australia and its territories on Census night and ensuring that every household is counted is challenging. To achieve this in 2021, the ABS will deliver a predominantly digital Census. This means that people will be able to complete the 2021 Census online, securely, from any device. Paper forms will still be available for those who need one, such as people without ready access to a device or an internet service, or for those who would prefer to complete their Census on paper.
The ABS is partnering with IT provider PwC Australia to build and operate the 2021 Census Digital Service. This includes the online form, website and assistance to help people participate in the Census. The service will operate on the Amazon Web Services cloud platform. Amazon Web Services has been awarded Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) certification to the highest classification level on the ASD Certification Cloud Service List (PROTECTED).
In 2016, the ABS introduced a 'digital-first' Census to improve the cost effectiveness of the Census and to meet community expectations; this was a significant change. Prior to 2016, paper forms were the primary way to complete the Census and were delivered and collected by hand, to and from every household in Australia. Hand delivery across the entire country is neither sustainable nor affordable and does not reflect the community’s increasing expectation of interacting with government digitally.
On Census night in 2016, the online form suffered a series of outages due to Distributed Denial of Service attacks. The ABS decided to close access to the online form to ensure the Census data was protected. The form was offline for 40 hours within an overall collection period of 8 weeks. No data was taken or lost. Despite the outage, more than 63 per cent of households completed their 2016 Census online. We expect that rate to increase in 2021.
The 2016 Census was successful, with:
• a greater than 95% participation rate
• the unique identifier for each online Census form ensured privacy and provided extra protections against fraud
• the Independent Assurance Panel established to review the quality of the 2016 Census data concluded that it was fit-for-purpose and could be used with confidence.
Lessons from the 2016 Census are informing planning and delivery of the 2021 Census. The ABS has recognised cyber security as a contemporary risk of operating in a digital world where information security and privacy are paramount. The ABS has implemented the recommendations from the Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security on procurements, privacy, engagement, risk management and cyber security. For example:
• the ABS has engaged external independent assurers to provide the 2021 Census with assurance around cyber security, project delivery and risk management
• the ABS is ensuring the community informs how the Census operates through user centred design, market research and focus groups, and formal consultation opportunities.