Planning the 2021 Census

Outlines how we propose to conduct the 2021 Census and explains how we will protect the privacy and confidentiality of the information you provide



The 2021 Census of Population and Housing (Census) will be Australia’s 18th Census.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is planning the design and implementation of the 2021 Census in consultation with the community and relevant organisations. This document outlines the steps we are taking in that process.

The Census is one of the largest and the most important statistical collections undertaken by the ABS. The Census measures the number and key characteristics of people in Australia on Census night, including where we live, how old we are, our ethnicity, religion (optional to answer), income, education, and our living and housing arrangements.

Information from the Census helps governments, businesses and not for profit organisations across the country make informed decisions. The Census improves the accuracy of population estimates for Australia in each state, territory, and local government area. It informs decisions on electoral boundaries and underpins funding to states, territories and local governments. It informs decisions for services and infrastructure such as roads, childcare, hospitals and schools for every community in Australia. The Census is also a vital tool for a myriad of investment decisions made by businesses across all sectors of the economy, and is used by community groups to inform support for some of the most vulnerable people in Australia.

As our society changes and technology advances, so too must the way we collect information through the Census. The ABS is committed to ensuring the Census collects accurate and timely information, in ways that are cost-effective, easy for people to participate and assures the privacy of personal information.

We will continue to encourage people to complete their Census online and lessons from the 2016 Census are informing our approach to the 2021 Census. Of course, a digital Census will not meet the needs of everyone, so paper forms will also be available.

The questions asked in the Census also determine the usefulness of the data collected. Drawing on an extensive public consultation process and testing by the ABS, the Australian Government is considering its decision on the Census topics for 2021.

This publication outlines how we propose to conduct the 2021 Census and explains how we will protect the privacy and confidentiality of the information you provide.

We look forward to your participation in the 2021 Census and thank you for your ongoing support.

David W. Kalisch
Australian Statistician  

About the Census

The next Census will be held in 2021. Censuses have been conducted in Australia in the first half of August since 1991.

The Census measures the number and some characteristics of people in Australia on Census night and provides a snapshot of the economic, social and cultural make-up of our nation.

Australia’s first national Census was held in 1911. The data collected over time through the Census helps to tell the story of how Australia is changing. It informs planning for services and the level of funding to be distributed between state and local governments.

Census data is used by people and organisations from all over Australia to inform decisions on issues that impact on our lives. This includes governments and government agencies, departments, local councils, not for profit organisations, researchers, businesses and community groups.

Census data also helps to:

  • determine the number of seats allocated to each state and territory in the House of Representatives and informs decisions on electoral boundaries
  • inform the distribution of billions of dollars of annual GST revenue to states and territories - $64 billion in 2017-18
  • determine state and territory grants to local government areas.

Legal authority for the Census

The Census is conducted under the Census and Statistics Act 1905 (the Act). The original Act stipulated that the Census would be taken in 1911 and in every tenth year thereafter. From 1961 the Census has been conducted every five years. This became mandatory with the 1977 amendment to the Act, requiring that the next Census be taken in 1981 and in every fifth year thereafter and at such other times as prescribed.

Who is included in the Census?

The Census includes every person, including overseas visitors, in Australia, Norfolk Island, the Territories of Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island on Census night.

The Census does not include Australian residents who are out of the country on Census night nor foreign diplomats and their families living in Australia.

Participation in the Census is compulsory and while penalties may apply if a person refuses to complete the Census, the ABS’s priority is to obtain informed and willing cooperation from everyone to complete the Census.

Responding to our changing environment

The Census approach must keep pace with the changing nature of the Australian community. Across our community living arrangements, lifestyles and family structures are becoming more complex. This means, for example, we need to be able to capture information from groups living in multi-generational households with large numbers of extended family members, and from people living in secure apartment buildings that are difficult to access.

In 2016, nearly half (49%) of Australians were either born overseas or had one or both parents born overseas. It is important that we capture data that accurately reflects this diversity.

We must continue updating our processes and using available technology to provide effective methods for people to participate, while also providing alternatives for people who choose to, or who have no option than to, use paper Census forms.

Internationally, Censuses and surveys are experiencing lower response rates. At the same time, national statistical offices around the world continue to face the challenge of meeting demands for more data.

We work collaboratively with our colleagues in international statistical organisations to share information and experience as we face many common challenges.

Making the 2021 Census a success

The ABS aims to deliver a successful 2021 Census by ensuring that:

  • the Census experience is simple and secure
  • there is a high level of community participation
  • the resulting Census data is high quality
  • governments, businesses and the community have confidence in the Census data.

Our approach to privacy, confidentiality and security

We understand the importance of the data we collect and hold. We respect your data and take our duty to protect it very seriously.

We never release data that could be linked to you or identify you. We abide by the Australian Privacy Principles and our legislative requirements.

We understand that keeping your data secure means we need to continuously review our practices and procedures. We do this by working closely with Australian Government security and cyber-security agencies and seeking external privacy advice.


The ABS does not share personal information that could identify you or any other person. This is a legal requirement of the Census and Statistics Act.

Other organisations, including all government departments and direct marketing companies, cannot access the personal information you provide on your Census form.

In addition to the Act, the ABS complies with the Privacy Act 1988 and handles all personal information in accordance with the Australian Privacy Principles. The Australian Privacy Principles set out standards, rights and obligations in relation to handling, holding, accessing and correcting personal information.

The ABS Privacy Policy provides more information about how your information is collected, stored, used and destroyed. The Policy outlines the provisions that legally bind ABS staff to protect your data. This includes fines of up to $25,200 or imprisonment for two years, or both.

Privacy is thoroughly considered during Census planning and operations and a privacy by design approach has already been adopted. Independent privacy experts, Galexia, has been selected to conduct a comprehensive privacy impact assessment in the lead up to the 2021 Census, commencing in the second half of 2019. They will identify and evaluate the potential privacy impacts of every stage of the Census and recommend ways to manage, minimise or eliminate these impacts. The privacy impact assessment will be published and publicly available by August 2020, one year ahead of the Census.

Keeping your data secure

Keeping your data secure is a high priority for the ABS. A critical feature of the Census, including the online form, is the high level of security protecting the privacy of personal information. The security measures in place have been, and will continue to be, independently tested and reviewed by security experts including from Government agencies such as the Australian Cyber Security Centre, and the private sector, to ensure that your personal information is secure.

ABS systems and processes are implemented in accordance with the Information Security Manual, which is part of the Australian Government's Protective Security Policy Framework.

Completed online and paper Census forms will be sent to a processing centre within the ABS that will operate within the Protective Security Policy Framework.

All Census data will be stored in Australia - the same as in all previous Censuses. Names and addresses will continue to be stored separately from other Census data.

When we release Census data, it is always anonymised and cannot be traced to any individual. We treat Census data in accordance with the internationally recognised Five Safes Framework.

Safe people as the detail in the data increases, the level of user authorisation increases.

Safe projects ensuring the data is being used for an appropriate purpose; that is, for statistical and research work only.

Safe settings ensuring that data access and use occurs in a transparent way.

Safe data data is always released in ways that make it exceptionally unlikely that individuals can be identified.

Safe outputs this is a final check on information before it is made public to ensure identifying information is not released. For example, in the ABS DataLab, statistical experts do a thorough check before outputs leave the DataLab environment.

Why we collect names and addresses

Names and addresses have been collected as part of every Census since 1911 and are a critical part of ensuring the quality and value of the Census. They will be stored securely and separately from one another. Names are collected in the Census for many reasons, including:

  • encouraging the person completing the form to provide the right information for each person in the household
  • enabling important research such as more accurate estimation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy
  • allowing our post-enumeration survey to assess the quality of the data (a post-enumeration survey is a short survey run in the month after the Census, to determine how many people were missed or counted more than once, and to independently assess completeness of the Census).

Addresses are collected in the Census for many reasons, including:

  • to minimise missing households, as the Census collects data on the key characteristics of people as well as the dwellings in which they live
  • to produce accurate population estimates for regions, which inform the distribution of government funds and for electoral purposes
  • to enable the development of a higher quality ABS Address Register, which is used widely to develop better survey processes, and improve processes and systems for the next Census
  • the ability to release data for geographic areas, such as postal areas, states and territories, capital cities, towns, remote areas and many more
  • to provide insights on the internal migration of people within Australia as well as the ability to measure travel distances to work).

The Australian Statistician committed to destroying names and addresses from the 2016 Census when there was no longer any community benefit to their retention, or four years after collection, whichever was earliest.

In line with this commitment, names collected in the 2016 Census have already been destroyed in 2019.

Addresses from the 2016 Census are required for longer. Census addresses are integral to creation of population statistics for different levels of geography (e.g. state, city, town and suburb) which inform local services, electoral boundaries, state and territory funding and business decisions.

Every Census, we create new data processing systems to manage the information collected from the approximately nine million Census forms returned by the Australian community, and to help develop that data into statistics.

In advance of the 2021 Census, we are using 2016 addresses to test these new processing systems to make sure they can:

  • handle the large volumes of complex address information
  • use addresses to accurately map data to a geographic location such as a town or suburb.

The address information collected in 2016 will be destroyed by August 2020 at the latest, consistent with past commitments.

Consultation on how long names and addresses should be kept

The ABS will seek views on the length of time we should keep names and addresses from the 2021 Census. This decision will be informed by the independent privacy impact assessment including consultation with members of the community, privacy experts and other stakeholders. This process will commence in late 2019.

Data integration

Anonymised names and encoded addresses are also used for data integration purposes. Data integration is where two or more separate sources of data are combined in a safe and secure way to create new information. By combining Census data with other survey and administrative data, we can provide a richer statistical picture of Australia.

Combining Census data with other data can help answer important questions about communities, families, our environment and the economy that no single dataset can answer. For example:

  • Healthcare: Healthcare services for vulnerable people can be designed and targeted more effectively due to a greater understanding of the backgrounds and living conditions of people accessing these services.
  • Employment opportunities: Training and employment support programs can be informed by how family background and different educational choices influence outcomes for students.
  • Access to education: The data be used to examine whether government support payments and programs for students are improving educational access and outcomes for students.

Importantly, data integration combines, or links, information from different sources while protecting the privacy and security of information. Information is only combined in a secure environment within the ABS, by a dedicated team. Only aggregate information will be released from the ABS environment, subject to strict confidentiality treatments. The ABS will never release information in a manner likely to enable the identification of a person or organisation.

More information about ABS data integration is available on our website.

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 topics​​​​

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.

Completing the Census

Every household, which may be comprised of one or more people, and each individual in a non private dwelling, such as a hotel, is required to complete the Census.

Completing the Census online

Most households (around 85%) will receive a Census letter, either by post or delivered by a Census field officer. This letter will include a unique Census online code for each dwelling and instructions on how to complete the online Census form. People will visit the Census website, enter their Census online code, create a password, and then start the Census.

Completing a paper Census form

A paper Census form will be delivered to the remaining dwellings, those in areas where we do not have accurate addresses, areas that do not have reliable internet access, or where we consider people are more likely to respond on a paper form. Alternatively, paper forms can be requested online or by calling the automated Census Paper Form Request Service which will be established in 2021.

A reply-paid envelope will be provided for the return of the completed Census paper form.

Requesting a private Census form

Some people may prefer to keep their Census information private from people they live with. We can send instructions on how to complete the Census online, or a separate paper form, for those who prefer to complete the Census as an individual rather than as part of a household.

Away from home in August 2021

Some people will be away from home on Census night. They should complete their Census where they are staying on Census night. People who are overseas on Census night are not required to complete the Census. We will provide details closer to the time about what to do if no one is staying at home on Census night.

Making it easy for people to participate

The ABS is working with the public and community organisations to ensure everyone in Australia and its territories can easily participate in the 2021 Census.

People will be able to schedule when they complete the Census, either in the days before or after Census night. We will support people to complete through online and telephone help services, community networks and through personal assistance by our field staff where required.

Advertising and communication campaign

A comprehensive, national communication campaign will be implemented to explain the value and purpose of the Census, and to ensure people in Australia know the Census is happening and how to participate. The communication campaign will run before, during and also after Census night to remind people who haven’t completed the Census to do so. It will include advertising, media, social media, and community engagement, and will be available in languages other than English.

Field staff

Our field staff will continue to play an important role in delivering and collecting Census materials, helping those who need it, and reminding people to complete their Census form.

In 2021, we expect to employ about 30,000 field staff around the country. In addition to assisting households, field staff will work with local communities and will include people from within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and people with languages other than English. We will also employ Special Census field staff who have either been homeless or have a background in supporting people experiencing homelessness.

During the Census, field staff will visit places such as retirement villages, aged care facilities, hospitals, hotels, caravan parks, camping grounds, marinas, and military facilities to ensure as many people as possible are counted.

Field staff will also follow up households that have not completed their Census soon after Census night.

Support services

People requiring assistance will be able to access a range of self-help services specifically set up for the 2021 Census. This includes information and services on the Census website and a telephone help line (the Census Contact Centre). Face to face support, such as information and fill in the form sessions, will also be available through community services and public spaces such as libraries and community centres.


The Census website and online Census form will meet online accessibility standards (currently WCAG2.1 AA). In addition:

  • Census information will be available in a range of languages other than English, including Auslan
  • large print and Braille Census forms will be available for those who need them
  • the National Relay Service will be available to support people who are deaf or have a hearing or speech impediment to connect with the Census Contact Centre
  • people who do not speak English will be able to access interpreting services through Translating and Interpreting Services National.

Our partners

The ABS appreciates the enormous support provided by communities to help people participate in the Census.

The ABS regularly engages with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups and communities to build and maintain good working relationships. The Census will collaborate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, organisations and other key stakeholders across urban and remote areas. The Centre of Excellence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics has developed an ABS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement Strategy which will inform Census engagement activities.

We will engage with representative multicultural groups and existing service providers to ensure we provide a good service to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) people, including face to face support options. With almost one in five Australians speaking a language other than English at home, we will help people who have difficulty speaking or reading English. The ABS is already engaged in a number of CALD advisory groups at a national, state and territory government level.

We are working with representative groups to ensure support is available from trusted partners for people who need help to participate in the Census.

We will partner with the homeless sector to ensure people experiencing homelessness are able to complete the form, whether they are sleeping rough, are in supported and/or crisis accommodation or staying with friends or family. The Homeless Statistics Reference Group is informing the planning and implementation of Census activities for these communities.

We will also work with organisations, in the lead up to Census night and during the Census period, representing seniors to ensure the Census is accessible to all.

Preparing for the Census – Census tests

Testing is an important part of the Census. Field tests help us check our processes to ensure the Census runs smoothly, people can participate easily and quality data is produced.

The first field test is scheduled for October 2019 in areas around Wagga Wagga, New South Wales and areas south of Brisbane, Queensland. This will test any impact on data quality from the proposed new and changed topics and questions. It will also test whether advising people they can complete the Census a few days before and after Census night has an impact on response rates or data quality.

In 2020 there will be a series of tests. These will test remote area strategies, and examine the operational readiness of our staff, systems, processes and vendors for the 2021 Census.

National archive

When you participate in the 2021 Census, you will have the opportunity to ensure your story is preserved as part of our national history.

If you agree, by marking your agreement on the Census form, the National Archives of Australia will preserve your information including your name and address in a highly secure Census time capsule for 99 years.

These storage arrangements are completely separate from the ABS storage of data and are managed by the National Archives of Australia. The information will be made available to family historians and researchers in 99 years.

Strategic risks and assurance


The design of the 2021 Census has incorporated lessons, reflections and findings from:

  • ABS’s experiences of running the challenging but ultimately successful 2016 Census
  • the implementation of the successful Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey (AMLPS)
  • operational experience from our regular program of surveys producing 500 statistical releases every year
  • experiences from our colleagues in international statistical agencies
  • the report on the quality of 2016 Census data release by the Census Independent Assurance Panel
  • the review by the Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security of the events surrounding the outage of the online Census form (the MacGibbon review)
  • Senate Inquiries into the 2016 Census and the operation of the AMLPS.

The ABS has established a clear approach to the management, ownership, assessment and treatment of risks and issues, and how we will manage these risks and issues.


KPMG has been appointed as the Independent Program Assurer to advise the 2021 Census in delivery of its key outcomes.

The Assurer provides an objective, third party view of the Census progress, along with real-time assurance and views on emerging risks and issues during Census operations. It reports directly to the Census Senior Responsible Officer and informs on the findings of its work to the Census Executive Board, which is chaired by the Australian Statistician and comprises senior ABS staff and external representatives.

Data quality assurance

Among national statistical agencies, data quality is generally assessed on whether the data is fit-for-purpose. This means that data quality is assessed not only on the accuracy of statistics, but their timeliness and relevance.

ABS has a quality framework for all its statistics, which it will be applying to Census data. More information on the ABS Data Quality Framework can be found on the website.

In order to produce high quality data from the 2021 Census, we are focussing on the design of the Census form and the procedures for data collection and processing.

Quality assurance

The quality assurance process makes sure the Census data is fit-for-purpose and meets the requirements of our data quality framework. The quality of Census data will be managed and assured through several activities.

Statistical risk management

Statistical risk is the chance or likelihood of something going wrong in a process that affects the quality or integrity of data. Statistical risks can occur at any time during design, execution and processing of the Census. Statistical risk arises for various reasons, including inadequate information, changes to existing processes, human error or changes in the external environment. Statistical risk is managed through the data quality controls discussed below.

Data quality controls

Data quality controls are business processes that ensure a part of the Census runs smoothly, for example management of field staff or distribution of Census materials to all dwellings. There are also data quality controls that explicitly manage the quality of Census data.

Data quality controls for the 2021 Census include:

  • use of quality checks at key stages during Census collection and processing to ensure that any potential causes of data errors are detected early and rectified
  • testing of processes, systems, field operations and new content will be undertaken in the lead up to the Census:
    • Questions have been tested through focus groups, individual interviews using cognitive testing techniques, and field tests. This will ensure high quality data can be obtained for the proposed new and amended topics.
    • Field tests will help refine the wording of questions and ensure new and changed questions do not impact the quality of responses.

Census Post Enumeration Survey

The Census is a large and complex exercise. There are always going to be a small number of people missed or who are counted more than once.

People may be missed for several reasons. For example, they may have been travelling and were difficult to contact, the person completing the form may have mistakenly thought that they shouldn't be counted, or the household was difficult to find. People can also be counted when they should not have been. This can occur when a person was overseas on Census night, but they were still included on a Census form at their home.

The Post Enumeration Survey is a short survey run the month after the Census to determine how many people were missed, counted more than once, or counted in error.

It is run separately from the Census to provide an independent assessment of the completeness of the Census.

From the Post Enumeration Survey, it is possible to determine the number of people who should have been counted in the Census. This is then compared to the number of people who were counted in the Census. The difference is referred to as ‘net undercount’ or ‘net overcount’.

For more information

For further information on the 2016 Post Enumeration Survey and net undercount, refer to the Census of Population and Housing: Details of Overcount and Undercount, Australia, 2016 ( 2940.0).

2021 Census Statistical Independent Assurance Panel

The ABS will establish a 2021 Census Statistical Independent Assurance Panel. The 2021 Panel will independently assure the 2021 Census data and publicly release a report on their findings.

This initiative follows the establishment of the 2016 Census Independent Assurance Panel. The 2016 Panel published their findings in the Report on the Quality of 2016 Census data, which is available on the ABS website. The 2016 Panel recommended that the ABS continue the practice of an Independent Assurance Panel reviewing the quality of the Census data to provide greater transparency and accountability

How we process Census data

The ABS aims to collect and process the information you provide on your Census form quickly and accurately. The way we manage this is vital to ensure high quality statistics.

We record when the ABS receives your Census form so our field staff only contact households that haven’t responded. This helps ensure coverage of all households. As with previous Censuses, a secure Data Capture Centre will be established to receive paper Census forms. A separate Data Operations Centre will process the information collected from all digital and paper Census forms.

As part of our data processing approach, we take many steps to ensure we correctly capture information from all forms we receive. A variety of quality assurance measures will be implemented throughout the data processing cycle. This is critical for providing accurate and high quality statistics for government, researchers and the community.

The ABS plans to start releasing Census data from mid-2022.

Data innovations

New approaches to undertaking a Census are being pursued by statistical organisations around the world. Australia, together with Canada, New Zealand, USA and the UK, is looking at approaches that use data obtained as Australians interact with government, businesses and other organisations (administrative data) to improve the quality of Census data, inform our operations, and collect our data more efficiently.

The 2021 Census will use administrative data to improve how we gather and process data from Census forms. For more information about these innovations, refer to Using administrative data for the 2021 Census.

Better information increases participation

Comparing 2016 Census data results with administrative data is always done in a secure way that ensures confidentiality and provides information on the general characteristics of dwellings that were harder to reach in the 2016 Census. This research, along with more up to date administrative data, will be used to inform strategies that may improve the participation of hard to reach population groups.

Improving how we determine an occupied/unoccupied dwelling

To ensure the most accurate counts of people from the Census, we need to determine whether each dwelling was occupied or unoccupied on Census night.

In addition to the observations made by Census field staff, the 2021 Census will use a 'signs of life' indicator using a range of administrative sources to improve the decision on whether the dwelling was occupied or not.

Our research shows that using administrative data in this way will improve the accuracy of the Census.

Improving counts of Australians

The 2021 Census will use an improved methodology to provide counts where no Census form is returned, but where we believe the dwelling was occupied on Census night. This methodology will use administrative data to identify how best to impute (i.e. calculate) basic Census data (counts ages, sex and marital status) for such households.

The article Can administrative data help to improve the Census count? presents results from our research, showing how administrative data can help improve counts for houses where no Census form is received, and help improve decisions on whether a house is unoccupied on Census night.

Release of results

Product and services review

Throughout 2019, the ABS is seeking ideas from data users on improvements to, or on new Census products and services to meet emerging needs. Information on proposed Census data products and services will be published on our website from 2020.

Geographic boundaries

Census data will be released using the 2021 Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS). For information on any geographic changes since 2016 see the ABS Geography Portal.

The Census will record the actual location where each person stayed on Census night, which is known as ‘place of enumeration basis’. As in 2016 and 2011, products from the 2021 Census will be released based on the area where people usually live (place of usual residence), with a limited release based on the ‘place of enumeration’ area.

Comprehensive material will be published to support the use of Census data.

How Census data is used to inform community services

The data collected in the Census is used to reset official population estimates and is critical to setting federal, state and territory electoral boundaries. It informs the allocation of billions of dollars of government funding to states, territories and local governments, and feeds into decisions about health care, education, social security, housing, transport and infrastructure.

Census data is also used by many organisations to help plan important support services in our community. Here’s a snapshot of how some organisations are using Census data.

Public transport and roads

State Transport Authorities use Census data on how people travel to work to inform transport infrastructure, services planning and investment. Census data helps identify traffic pressures, plan future road network upgrades, and manage public transport services.

Local council services

Census data provides local city councils with a profile of their community to inform planning and services. Penrith City Council is a growing local government area that has recently used Census data to help identify how its community has changed and to plan local services including aged-care and disability support.

Institute for Urban Indigenous Health

The Institute for Urban Indigenous Health plans, develops and delivers primary health care services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in South East Queensland. It uses Census data to know how many Indigenous people there are in the region, and the locations where they are living to inform where multidisciplinary health clinics are required.

The Institute was established in 2009 by the four community-controlled health services in South East Queensland, and the regional network has since expanded to 20 clinics. Based on Census data, there are plans to build additional clinics to provide for the needs of Australia’s second largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

Orange Sky Laundry

Orange Sky Laundry is a profit-for-purpose organisation that provides free laundry and shower services to some of Australia’s most vulnerable people. 2016 Census data found that 116,000 Australians are experiencing homelessness; that’s one in 200 people. Census data helps Orange Sky Laundry to know where their services are needed most.

Since it started in 2014 by two 20-year-old mates, it has expanded to 29 services across the country. What started as an idea to improve hygiene and restore dignity to people doing it tough in Brisbane has evolved into a national service on the verge of going international.

More information

To stay up to date with progress on planning for the 2021 Census, you can:

  • visit
  • subscribe to receive our newsletter straight to your inbox
  • register your interest in working as part of our field staff in 2021.

Previous catalogue number

This release previously used catalogue number 2089.0.

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