The 2021 Census stories

Delivering the 2021 Census


To reach every person who is in Australia on Census day, and ensure we count every dwelling, the ABS needs at least six years for planning and coordination. The diagram below shows the stages involved in moving towards operations and preparedness for the 2021 Census.

Infographic of timeline describing the research and design phase, the development phase and the operations phase of the Census cycle.
This diagram shows the phases of the Census Cycle. This is split into research and design, development and operations. Initial planning for 2026 Census occurs from around mid-2021. In 2017, the focus was on program initiation and strategy. In 2018, the focus was on concept development and testing. In 2019, the focus was on operational development and testing. In 2020, the focus was on mobilisation and operational readiness. In 2021, the focus was on operations. In 2022, the focus was on dissemination and evaluation.

Preparations for the 2021 Census start before the last one has been conducted and in the year after the 2016 Census, initiation for the 2021 Census program was well underway.

In order to ensure systems and processes are robust, we undertake testing, and in the lead up to the 2021 Census we ran two major tests. In 2019, we engaged 40,000 dwellings in Queensland and New South Wales to test our new:

In 2020, we engaged 100,000 dwellings in parts of New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory to test our:

  • COVID strategy
  • digital service
  • processing and coding systems
  • Remote Area Strategy.

The Census collection period starts at the beginning of a Census year with the recruitment of engagement staff, who contact communities and larger establishments such as hospitals and hotels. This preparation is important for raising awareness of, and sharing procedures for, the upcoming Census. In July a communications campaign begins, a contact centre opens and a website is launched. In the lead up to Census day, typically one to two weeks before, materials are sent to households through the post or, where mail is less reliable, delivered by field staff. These materials explain how to participate and encourage people to respond either online or using a paper form.

After Census day, field staff visit dwellings that have not responded to remind them to complete the Census. Field staff also visit establishments (like hotels) to collect any forms left there.

After the Collection period, we spend 10 months processing the responses before delivering the data. The 2021 Census data is being delivered in a phased approach with three releases: the first on 28 June 2022, the second on 12 October 2022, and the third in March 2023.

Infographic of timeline with major activities, including the preparation phase, the approach phase, Census night, follow-up phase, processing phase and dissemination phase.
Diagram showing the major activities of the Census. • Preparation Phase was from 1 May - 23 July 2021. This covers training and onboarding of temporary workforce, printing and distribution of Census material, community engagement, and the communication campaign launch. • Approach Phase was from 23 July - 9 August 2021. This covers the online form going live to the public, Census Instruction Letters are mailed to households in urban areas, Paper forms are delivered by Field Staff in rural areas, and Instructions are delivered to Non-Private Dwellings. • Census night was on 10 August 2021. • Follow-up phase was from 11 August - 30 September 2021. This covers reminder letters being mailed to non-responding households and visits to non-responding dwellings. • Processing phase was from 1 September 2021 - 31 May 2022. This covers receipt and scanning of paper forms, electronic data capture of responses, coding of responses, and data validation. • Dissemination phase was from June 2022. This covers first data release, including health and Defence Force Service information (June 2022), second data release (October 2022), and third data release (early-mid 2023). Collection occurs during Preparation, Approach, Census night and the Follow-up phases.

Staffing profile

The ABS employed 35,000 temporary and ongoing staff to work on the 2021 Census. This included:

  • 33,000 temporary field staff across the country
  • 400 temporary field support staff centrally managing the field operations
  • 800 temporary staff within our Data Capture Centre and data operations centre to process all the paper forms and code all the responses
  • 800 ABS office staff including those in the Census Program, and in technology, human resources and office support.

This number does not include some large workforces involved in the Census through our external vendors including:

  • Australia Post to deliver and return letters and paper forms
  • establishment officers (up to 10,000) to deliver and collect forms at large establishments like hospitals and hotels
  • logistics providers such as printing, materials handling and transport companies
  • human resources suppliers working to recruit and pay our temporary staff
  • the Services Australia Contact Centre (peaking at 3,500 operators) to receive calls from the Australian public
  • our major IT partners – PwC Australia and Amazon Web Services
  • another 40 suppliers and their staff.

Scale of the Census

The scale of everything in the Australian Census is large, including the workforce, the materials and the engagement with everyone living in Australia on Census day. Below are a few examples.

Infographic of the scale of the 2021 Census
Infographic shows the scale of the 2021 Census. 1. Approximately 35,000 staff to run the Census 2. Census information collected from 25 million people and 11 million dwellings 3. Our chatbot guided 375,000 conversations 4. 18 million visitors to the website 5. Our call centre answered 645,000 calls 6. 7 years from planning to final data release 7. Information available in 44 languages including Auslan 8. Field staff travelled 10 million km 9. 60 million pages of paper Census forms scanned 10. Mailed out 13.6 million items 11. 1,430 tonnes of fully recyclable paper 12. 9 months to print paper forms.

Learning from the 2016 Census

The 2016 Census provided many important insights and lessons. A number of reviews were conducted into the 2016 Census, primarily because of the high-profile 40-hour website outage, but there were also other concerns about privacy and communication. These reviews included a report the Australian Government commissioned by Alastair MacGibbon, Review of the events surrounding the 2016 eCensus, and a review through the Australian Senate, 2016 Census: Issues of trust. We also commissioned our own review into the data quality of the 2016 Census by the Independent Assurance Panel, Report on the quality of 2016 Census data.

We combined the recommendations from these reviews with the findings of our own internal evaluation and a review of other international census experiences. This resulted in the following key lessons on how we should prepare for, and conduct the 2021 Census:

  • Improve risk management and risk mitigation.
  • Seek more external expertise and assurance.
  • Be cautious of past successes.
  • Plan for things to go wrong.
  • Be attuned to changing contexts and be respondent focused.
  • Improve communication and engagement.
  • Have trust in the public to do the right thing.
  • Understand that perceptions are as important as reality.
  • Plan for the possible, not just the expected.

You can also read our actions from the MacGibbon recommendations on the ABS website.

We were keen to meet public expectations for a modern experience in conducting the 2021 Census. We wanted to provide respondents with a simple, streamlined service and remove any barriers they had to completing a Census form.

The stories in this report describe some of our major initiatives and how we succeeded in implementing what we learned from 2016. The initial Census data was released on 28 June 2022 and we can proudly claim we:

  • achieved a very high response rate
  • achieved a high-quality statistical outcome
  • provided an improved experience for the public and our staff compared to 2016.
Infographic showing key response rates, online responses and reduction in reminder letters for 2021 Census
This infographics shows there was a 96.1% dwelling response rate; 78.9% of people completed their Census online, and 21.2% completed via a paper form. Design innovations led to: • the highest ever number of online responses. This was 4.5m in 2016 and increased to 7.6m in 2021. 80% were submitted by Census night. • a reduction in the number of reminder letters required from a predicted 6.7m to 2.7m. There was also a reduction in calls to the Census Contact Centre from 1.2m in 2016 to 645,000 in 2021.
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