Learning for 2026

Delivering the 2021 Census

Opportunities and challenges

We have already turned our mind to the 2026 Census and looking at ways we can build on the success of 2021. We know we must continually evolve to meet public expectation about what a Census should deliver.

As highlighted throughout this report, the Census is an enormous exercise in terms of scale and such an endeavour has its challenges. We must continue to evolve and address challenges if we are to achieve the highest quality data.

In regional Australia and remote areas, achieving high response rates remains an ongoing challenge despite consistently improving our engagement effort. The undercount for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in these areas will continue to be a high priority and an area of focus in preparation for the 2026 Census.

The Cyber environment continues to evolve, and we need to work closely with public and private cyber security experts to ensure our defences are robust and secure.

Recruiting a large workforce across Australia poses many challenges but this was particularly difficult in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. In pockets across the country, we had gaps in our field workforce. This brought about difficulties in delivering Census materials to respondents and providing enough support to help people participate. We will need to continually innovate our recruitment approaches to address potential shortcomings in the 2026 Census cycle.

The technology used by the field workforce is important but a small minority of the workforce have challenges in using our technical solutions. We will continually work on ensuring we take a user-centred design approach to these systems so they are intuitive, easy to install, simple to find support and generally make it easier for our staff to complete their Census field work.

The Australian public are very supportive of the Census and appreciative of the engagement and support we provided for the 2021 Census. Understanding our customers is critical to informing what support we provide. We must continue to improve our customer support services to cater for those who need help participating, e.g. making the Census accessible, providing a braille form and improving digital and non-digital support options.

The stories outlined in this report have explained in some detail what we have done to overcome these challenges in 2021 but there is always more to do.

Looking forward to 2026 and beyond

Given the success of the 2021 Census, we are not planning to fundamentally change the model for running the 2026 Census.

We will invest our resources to continue to:

  • achieve high quality Census data at a national, state and small area level to inform decisions so that the right services can be provided across Australia
  • maintain and grow the value of the Census for all Australians
  • deliver a safe Census with a good public experience. 

We will be considering factors such as:

  • the rising costs of running a Census
  • public expectations of what constitutes a good government experience
  • the opportunities arising from new technologies to give respondents an even better experience
  • opportunities for expanding the use of administrative data to increase data quality in the processing phase of the Census
  • key risks such as supply chain disruptions and availability of labour
  • the need for continual vigilance and awareness of changes in the cyber security environment
  • approaches and experiences from other international Census colleagues who have similar Census models, including USA, Canada, UK, NZ and Ireland.

While paper materials will still be available, the 2026 Census will again take a digital-first approach. Technology changes rapidly and we will continue to evolve to ensure a safe, secure and easy online Census experience.

We will continue working closely with Census stakeholders, including data users and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse communities and organisations representing people with disability. Connecting and seeking guidance from these communities helps us understand their needs so we can provide the right support; where, when and how it’s needed and ensure all Australians get value from the data produced from the Census.

Choosing what we collect on the Census

Choosing the topics that are on the Census is one of the first activities we kick off in the Census. Many Census topics are critical to support key decisions and provide an understanding of social changes over time.

A number of Census topics, including age and location, support key government decisions, feed into official population estimates for Australia and therefore will not change. However, other topics could be enhanced or expanded in the 2026 Census.

Consultation with the Australian public plays a key part in determining the topics collected on the Census. We will be commencing the public topic consultation process towards the end of 2022. Following the consultation we will work with stakeholders, including major data users and undertake extensive testing to refine the topics. Recommendations from the ABS will then be submitted to the Australian Government who makes the final decision on Census topics.

We are looking forward to starting this very important process and working with the Australian community to understand what our Census topics will look like in 2026. This will be done in line with consideration of the broader social statistics program run by the ABS.

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