Like other government agencies, national statistics agencies have been working out how to do more with their limited resources. For most agencies, the largest and most expensive statistical collection is the Census, a comprehensive count of population and data on age, sex, education, household composition and finances, dwellings, employment and journey-to-work, indigenous status and languages spoken at home, and more. The most recent Australian Census in 2016 cost $500 million and could be done online for the first time, with the next one in 2021 being redesigned in expectation of the great majority of forms being completed online. It is conducted every five years and the data is available free from the ABS website.
A new report from Lateral Economics Valuing the Australian Census has looked at how Census data is used in a wide range of industries and come up with estimates for the value created: “Census data has a contributing role to a wide range of policy decisions and private sector decisions across a range of sectors. Census data can also have a more formal role as a direct input to resource allocation. This includes funding formulas and allocations in government, and drawing electoral boundaries.” The relevance of such locational, demographic and building stock data to the built emvironment sector is obvious, with infrastructure, real estate and planning providing many of the examples.
The report makes some broad economic estimates of the value of these uses, finding the Census delivers $6 of value for every $1 of costs. The methodology builds on previous efforts in the UK and US. Lateral Economics found the annual value produced was $666 million, with another $166m added for general use (including research and teaching), for a total of $832m.
Built environment related expenditure is the majority of this. Infrastructure in general and health and transport in particular accounted for half the total, and a broad catagory of Other Commercial Uses another $100m. The other uses examined are Locational decisions and market research, real estate advisory, insurance and community organisations.
“The clear conclusion we have reached from our research and consultations across the Australian public and private sectors is that the Australian Census plays a critical role in building evidence and decision making to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, fairness and integrity of Australia’s economic and social infrastructure. Public sector agencies – particularly at the state level which rely on the Census to provide data for small areas and disadvantaged groups – have built up a vast array of models to inform their service delivery and infrastructure decisions based on the five-yearly Census data.
Additionally, demographers and social researchers have come to rely on the Census as providing an in-depth examination of how the Australian population is changing…. Because it is comprehensive and accessible, Census data is influential in helping commercial and other sectors understand the size and nature of markets, which influences many locational and other resource allocation decisions.
This report’s quantitative analysis provides an indicative estimate in the order of $6 of value for every $1 of costs, on the basis of assumptions made and taking into account additional value due to the ‘long tail’ of further widely distributed uses across the Australian community. In general, the Australian community’s collective effort every five years to undertake the Census is more than worth it.”
Lateral Economics is also responsible for the Australian Wellbeing Index, which adds census data like education, health and the environment to economic data like GDP and employment. Canada and New Zealand have similar indexes, developed in response to criticisms that GDP, national income and GDP per capita are too narrow measures of social welfare. The 2019 update came out earlier this year. The index has been flat for the last three years.