Story 3: An inclusive Census

Delivering the 2021 Census


A critical part of any Census is to make sure that everyone who is in Australia on Census day is counted. For the 2021 Census, we had a team to design inclusive strategies for groups who faced barriers to taking part in the Census. The team developed these strategies through a combination of:

  • lessons learned from past Census experiences
  • information gathered from engaging with stakeholders
  • user-centred design activities.

The strategies focused on supporting the following population groups:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across urban, regional and remote areas of Australia
  • people from CALD communities, including international students
  • people experiencing homelessness
  • people who prefer to get Census assistance in person.

Each strategy provided different types of support for each community, depending on their needs. The support could include tailored communication, extra engagement within the community and direct support, including providing multilingual staff where needed.

We employed nearly 60 Census Engagement Managers in early 2021, who were assigned one of these population groups for a specific region. Their role was to enact the strategy for that population through extensive engagement with the respective communities. They included establishing contacts for the Census Collection period, promoting inclusion in the Census, emphasising its importance and providing guidance on where to find help for these communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

We had a strong focus on increasing opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to influence the way in which the Census was conducted and communicated.

This was a major recommendation from the Report on the quality of 2016 Census Data:

‘The ABS should consider methods to improve the enumeration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, explored in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.’

In response to the recommendation, all development and testing activities to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices:

  • at the ABS Round Table on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics
  • in user-centred design research
  • in testing the Census Digital Service and form content
  • in testing the communications campaign.

The ABS has a permanent team focused on engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples called the Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics. This team employs a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and played a pivotal role in the 2021 Census by building on established relationships and expanding the team to conduct extensive outreach with community and organisations across the country.

Field engagement staff, many who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, were recruited to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. They moved beyond a typical transactional engagement to promote the shared benefits of the Census and encourage community-led action. A number of these people also volunteered to be trained as official Census spokespeople for media interviews.

Specific recruitment strategies were established to help us increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people employed in the Census. This resulted in 6.4% of our Census field workforce identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

The activities to support participation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the Census included:

  • engagement with 1,826 organisations
  • training of 24 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff members as media spokespeople
  • recruitment of Census engagement staff directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • recruitment of 1,530 community field staff to conduct interviews to fill in especially designed forms (the Interviewer Household Form).
Census field staff going through Census form with a member of the community

Remote Community Field Officer with respondent

Working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities

The national Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Strategy was designed to ensure all CALD population groups were counted in the Census and that the ABS tackled barriers to their participation. We identified which population groups needed support through extensive engagement with CALD stakeholders. Targeted communications and support, including face-to-face help events, were then developed to reach culturally diverse population groups.

The ABS formed a close relationship with the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia to ensure the Census was as inclusive as possible for CALD communities.

To help encourage CALD communities to participate in the Census there were:

  • 900 CALD organisations engaged
  • 15 ABS media spokespeople speaking 17 different languages
  • 340 CALD fill in the form sessions
  • 400 Census engagement staff recruited from diverse communities
  • 25% of 33,000 field staff self-identifying as speaking a language other than English
  • social media tiles in 29 languages shared directly with communities
  • 17,000 calls made to the Translating and Interpreting Service
  • 4,000 views of an Easy Read Guide to the Census.
Census banner

Some examples of our engagements with specific populations:

The Tangentyere Aboriginal Corporation

The Tangentyere Aboriginal Corporation (TAC) are a long-term supporter of the Census. They provided valuable insights to the 2021 Census ‘remote expert’ advisory group. This resulted in many enhancements to the specifically designed Census form for remote communities, the Interviewer Household Form. It also improved Census materials and training for field officers working in these communities.

TAC subsequently supported a remote test in 2020 and provided opportunities for their Research Hub staff to form a local management team in 2021. This team ultimately led and collected information from all the Alice Springs town camps.

The relationship between the ABS and TAC is a clear example of where strong ongoing engagement and partnerships can lead to better outcomes.

Arabic virtual information session

In conjunction with the SydWest Multicultural Services, the ABS conducted an Arabic virtual Census information session during the Sydney COVID lockdown. The highlight was the question and answer session, which lasted for over an hour and received very positive feedback from the participants.

The Census Lesson Guides for CALD communities

These proved a particularly popular resource with CALD communities. The guides were distributed to educational institutions in all states and territories to be integrated into their curriculum. The guides were used extensively in the Adult Migrant Educational Program, which helps support new migrants to learn English language skills. This meant that these students were able to learn about the Census as part of their English lessons.

Nyamba Buru Yawuru organisation

In Broome, Western Australia, the ABS partnered with Nyamba Buru Yawuru organisation to support local residents. They reached out to their network of elders to offer assistance, and directly supported Census field officers in walking the beat of Broome streets during the Follow-Up phase, thus ensuring a more accurate count.

The Yawuru people are the traditional owners of the lands and waters in and around Rubibi (the town of Broome) from Bangarangara to the yalimban (south) to Wirrjinmirr (Willie Creek) to the guniyan (north), and banu (east) covering Roebuck Plains and Thangoo pastoral leases, in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia.

More than a job

For some new migrants, a Census job was their first taste of employment in Australia. A recent immigrant from Iraq conducted a fill in the form session in Arabic and ran a pop-up hub in his hometown of Geelong. To him, the Census represented more than just an employment opportunity, but a chance to make a contribution to his new country while promoting the benefits of the Census to the Iraqi community in his area.

Seasonal farm workers

In the Mid North and Riverland regions of South Australia, a staff member from the Pacific Islands engaged with employers to help arrange and promote fill in the form sessions for seasonal farm workers. These workers are part of the Pacific Labour Scheme to fill labour shortages.

The fill in the form sessions were held in a classroom and 500 workers whose English was not strong were able to be counted accurately in the Census. For most it was potentially their only Australian Census.

Census banner

People experiencing homelessness

Homelessness takes many forms including:

  • staying in temporary or supported accommodation such as boarding houses, hostels and shelters
  • sleeping rough
  • staying temporarily with family and friends (couch surfing)
  • living in severely crowded dwellings.

We designed our Homelessness Strategy to ensure all people experiencing homelessness could participate in the Census. Engaging and collaborating effectively with the homelessness sector was critical to improving participation and the quality of responses.

We created strong relationships with a range of stakeholders through the Homelessness Strategy, which involved:

  • all levels of government
  • peak homelessness bodies
  • a wide range of service providers.

One crucial element of this engagement was ensuring all organisations across the sector understood how the Census produces homelessness estimates and the strong link between estimates and funding for services and programs. It was also important to provide clear direction on how people experiencing homelessness could participate in the Census and respond to key questions, like the ‘usual address’ question. Organisations were then able to use their networks and relationships with their clients to share this information and help people to take part.

Through engagement with state and territory governments, we were also able to get administrative data to help us plan and ensure we correctly classified the different types of homelessness.

Our tactics to reach people experiencing homelessness varied depending on where they were staying. For example, we:

  • employed people who work in homelessness shelters to help their residents to participate
  • had roving teams that offered interviews to rough sleepers on a special short form
  • worked with targeted accommodation providers such as hotels, motels and caravan parks
  • had a youth ambassador program that targeted schools to explain to students experiencing homelessness why they should participate in the Census and how they could do so.

We employed almost 600 engagement and field staff for the Homelessness Strategy. Many of these were from the homelessness sector or had previous experience working in the homelessness sector.

We also produced a range of homelessness communications materials, such as posters, fact sheets, videos and social media tiles. An important aspect of these was to educate people experiencing homelessness on how to accurately fill in the ‘usual address’ question so that their situation was accurately recorded.

We actively adapted our homelessness approach to suit local circumstances including lockdowns. This included provision of alternative online and telephone support, mail-out of additional forms and extending the period during which we provided support for communities in some areas.

In some areas, the COVID-19 pandemic changed where and how people were sleeping rough. The ABS worked with state and local governments and the homelessness sector in areas impacted by COVID-19 to develop the safest and most appropriate response.

Face-to-face assistance

A new service for the public this Census was pop-up hubs. More than 300 hubs across Australia were introduced to provide accessible, face-to-face support options to members of the public. They were set up in both urban and regional locations across Australia in high traffic areas such as shopping centres and supermarkets. The hubs provided a friendly and supportive environment to encourage people to participate in the Census. Members of the public could have their Census questions answered and some were helped to complete their form on the spot.

While a wide demographic visited the hubs, they were particularly popular with people on holiday, older people and people with disabilities.

The ABS also offered more than 100 fill in the form sessions at community centres like libraries. At these sessions members of the public could receive one-on-one support to complete the Census. The sessions attracted a range of people including older Australians, people with disabilities, people with lower levels of literacy and members of the CALD community.

Map of Australia with orange pins identifying where pop-up hubs and fill in the form sessions were set up.

‘Find us’ map on the Census website directed people to pop-up hubs and fill in the form sessions.

Photo of Census staff at a pop-up hub sitting behind a table outside of Woolworths.

One of the 300 pop-up hubs

Back to top of the page