Story 13: Delivering a successful Census during a pandemic
When Australia has taken censuses during and immediately following significant world events, such as the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and the World Wars, the data has been instrumental in understanding the effects these events have had on the economic and social fabric of Australia. This Census will be no different, and the data we are releasing has immediate value to users and enduring value to researchers, because it will reveal how the pandemic has changed life in Australia.
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in Australia in early 2020 and its impacts became known, the ABS began planning for the prospect of it affecting Census collection in 2021. Being able to observe the potential implications a year out from most of our collection and processing activities, provided some opportunities.
We planned extensively on how to engage with the community, and how to protect staff in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. We developed a three-step COVID-19 safe plan that described how we would conduct Census fieldwork based on the relevant step we were using at the time.
We conducted an operational readiness exercise in October 2020 involving 100,000 dwellings in three states. As part of the exercise, we tested the effectiveness of our COVID-19 safe plan:
- In Victoria, we used a mail-only approach with no field staff, relying on letters and advertising because Victoria was locked down at that time.
- In Sydney, we tested a contactless approach where field staff dropped material at letterboxes instead of knocking on doors.
- In South Australia, we tested how we would withdraw our field staff in response to a sudden change in restrictions in that state and how we would organise the safe return of field staff once restrictions were eased.
We took advantage of similar international census experiences affected by COVID-19, particularly:
- the United States of America - Census day was 1 April 2020
- the United Kingdom - Census day was 21 March 2021
- Canada - Census day was 11 May 2021.
The key goals of our COVID-19 approach were to maximise response while keeping the community and our staff safe. This involved continuously monitoring the changing COVID-19 situation to ensure that our safety measures were up-to-date and met the guidelines and advice from the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. It also meant actively adapting our approach to suit local circumstances, including lockdowns.
We developed specific reports to monitor potential impacts on collection such as observing areas with low field staff recruitment, lower than expected response or low number of dwellings. From these reports we could take predefined actions such as:
- adjusting recruitment targets
- moving field staff to different areas
- adjusting the timing of Census reminder letters or the messaging in operational communications.
A critical aspect of our planning was how we used technologies, particularly those for our field staff. We established ways to engage our field staff online including through virtual onboarding and training. Important functions such as payroll and workload distribution were also managed online. This helped trainers or field managers who were not able to have face-to-face interactions with staff. This also involved developing more online training.
Counting people in quarantine
The ABS COVID-19 safe plan included strategies to count people in quarantine facilities. This ensured both incoming travellers from a declared COVID-19 hotspot and international arrivals staying in a government quarantine facility could participate in the Census. To ensure the safety of field staff and the community, there was no direct contact with people in quarantine facilities.
COVID-19 quarantine facilities were removed from field staff workloads and were managed remotely by ABS office staff. A point of contact was established for each facility to coordinate instructions and to identify the estimated number of residents staying at the facility on Census day. In line with health advice, we did not provide paper forms and all quarantined travellers completed the Census online.
Given the ongoing labour shortage in Australia during the pandemic, the ABS faced challenges in recruiting people with the skills and experience to fill some Census field roles. This situation occurred across the country, from the inner cities to remote regional areas in Northern Queensland, Central and Northern Western Australia that traditionally rely on transient workers.
Half of the eastern coast of Australia was in lockdown on and around Census day, forcing us to use casual contact and contactless procedures for much of our engagement. The lockdowns also directly resulted in an increased number of unoccupied dwellings in the cities and surrounding holiday areas.
The logistics of our operations were at times quite challenging. Moving staff across state boundaries and even some Local Government Areas was restricted. When we could move staff, we also had trouble finding temporary accommodation and rental cars for them. Our plans for establishing pop-up information hubs in shopping centres and libraries to help people from non-English speaking backgrounds or older Australians was also restricted.
Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities were closed for long periods during the pandemic, forcing us to use different engagement strategies. This included accepting help from other departments, such as Health and Services Australia, to access these areas.
In the large urban centres of New South Wales and Victoria, many people experiencing homelessness were moved to supported temporary accommodation. We engaged extensively with services supporting these people, including state and local governments, to make sure they were counted.
Despite the challenges, we quickly adapted in many ways, as described in detail in previous stories. Our preparations and agility served us well and most areas met or exceeded their target response rates.
People under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were still required to complete the Census. The ABS advised them on how to respond to questions related to study and work impacted by the change of circumstances. Most people were able to complete the Census online. They either received instructions in the mail or had a paper form dropped off outside their dwelling or they used the no Census number pathway to log into the online form. The work completed in user-centred design also allowed respondents to readily access the services required.
Our engagement with many vulnerable communities was carried out with care and sensitivity without compromising response rates. Where we applied contactless procedures, we have seen high response rates.
Communication with our large workforce on the changing environment and any subsequent changes to our procedures worked well. The online Census Knowledge Base proved to be an extremely effective communication channel, with daily and even hourly updates of field notices keeping staff informed.
Our new centralised management model helped us in making timely decisions and quickly adapting procedures.
Australia Post’s agility in responding to our changing requirements was greatly appreciated. With little notice, they dispatched an extra one million extra paper forms and letters just before Census day, 10 August 2021.
While not initially planned in this way, 99% of all our engagement with field staff was done online.
Importantly, we kept our staff and the public safe following the three-step COVID-19 plan with effective workplace health and safety practices.