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UNECE launches biggest ever international effort to update guidance for censuses

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In the largest ever effort of its kind, a multi-year UNECE project has kicked off to produce internationally agreed guidance and advice for conducting the next round of censuses, foreseen around 2030. 

Censuses and the information they provide on populations, their distributions and characteristics and how these change over time, are key to all policymaking and underpin the work of the entire United Nations system. 

All UNECE countries, plus many beyond the region, rely on the Conference of European Statisticians’ Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses to help them plan and carry out their censuses, ensuring that they are reliable, cost-effective and comparable. The update of these regional recommendations lays the groundwork for a subsequent global revision of the overarching UN Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, which draws heavily on the experiences in the region. 

The cornerstone of informed decision-making 

A census of a country’s population and housing—a full count of everyone who lives there and the homes they live in—is the cornerstone of every country’s statistical system. It provides the baseline for many of the figures we see in the news every day; anything that’s given ‘per capita’ depends on knowing the size of the population. And many social, economic and environmental policies are shaped by information about where people live, how old they are, how many children or older people live in each place, and the income levels in different parts of a country. The information gathered in a census also lays the foundation for the sample surveys, population estimates and projections undertaken by national statistical offices. So important is a census for formulating and monitoring national and international policies, in fact, that it’s enshrined both in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (target 17.19 is assessed by counting countries that have conducted at least one census in the past ten years) and in a Resolution of the United Nations Economic and Social Council that urges every country to conduct a census during the period 2015 to 2024 – known as ‘the 2020 round’. 

A census can also be one of the biggest, most expensive and most complex operations a statistical office undertakes, although current trends towards increased efficiency and modernization of data collection are now easing the burden.   

This combination of importance, expense and complexity calls for detailed planning. The moment one census ends, countries are already planning the next. They depend on comprehensive guidance—to make sure they collect the data that’s needed, that they use the best methods, and that the figures they produce follow internationally-agreed definitions so that they can be compared over time and across countries. They also need guidance on how to interact with the population to maintain their trust and willingness to participate; and on how best to disseminate results in a way that can be understood and used by the full range of stakeholders. 

Why international coordination matters 

The Conference of European Statisticians (CES), UNECE’s highest statistical decision-making body, produces a detailed guide that serves as a manual for countries to conduct their census. Revised every ten years in advance of each census round, these regional recommendations have served as the main reference for countries both within and beyond the region since the 1950s. Not only does the guide advise countries on the methods and quality control procedures to follow; it also recommends ‘core’ topics, on which every country should try to produce comparable indicators, and ‘non-core’ topics, which countries may decide to include—and gives advise on how to measure each of these. 

Feeding directly into European Union legislation, much of the UNECE guidance becomes a legal requirement for EU countries, which all conduct their censuses within a short time period using harmonized definitions to make the resulting data as comparable as possible. 

UNECE does not stop at developing the guidance, but also works with countries to ensure it is followed, employing a suite of approaches: expert conferences, training workshops and on-the ground support before, during and after censuses. 

Harnessing new methods and adapting to changing needs 

While basic features that make a census a census – counting every individual and every home at the same time – haven’t changed, much else has. A range of large-scale transformations make the UNECE project to update the Recommendations more essential than ever. 

The past decade has seen a fundamental shift in the ways that census information is collected. In nearly all of the countries where information is collected by enumerators, they now use tablets or mobile devices rather than paper forms, meaning that data can be checked straight away and uploaded automatically. Many countries use Internet-based questionnaires that people complete themselves, while others bypass the direct collection of data from individuals altogether, replacing it with data gathered from population registers or other administrative sources. Task forces dedicated to enumeration methods and technology are assessing these trends and updating the guidance to account for what’s changed and what’s been learned in recent years. 

Another change that the project will study is the nature of communication and outreach before and during a census. Public perceptions of government-linked institutions, even independent ones such as national statistical offices, have altered profoundly. Countries need clearer guidance on winning and maintaining public trust in the census, so that people will willingly take part and so that the resulting data will be complete and accurate.  

A positive trend which the revised Recommendations hope to harness is the growing democratization of data—a recognition that census and other data are not only for government officials but for everybody. With this in mind, a task force dedicated to dissemination is looking at best practices in publishing census data, such as interactive maps, charts and infographics that make census findings more accessible and understandable to users with all levels of expertise. 

And then, of course, there is the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic had, and continues to have, unprecedented effects on the 2020 census round. Countries did what they could in the face of budget cuts, lockdowns and social distancing measures, legislative delays and data quality concerns. They learned on the fly, and some saw silver linings as internet response rates exceeded expectations or techniques for harnessing administrative sources were honed faster than planned. But now countries are clamouring for guidance to help them better navigate future crises. A task force on emergency preparedness and contingency planning will develop a whole new chapter of the guidance, not previously covered in its own right in the Recommendations. 

The project consists of 13 task forces, each dealing with a specific theme identified as a priority by the international community of census experts who make up the UNECE Group of Experts on Population and Housing Censuses. These 13 themes are those in which the people who design and run censuses across the UNECE region feel that circumstances have changed so much that they need new or improved recommendations: 

  • Emergency preparedness and contingency planning 

  • Quality assessment and quality management 

  • Enumeration methods 

  • Technology 

  • Population concepts and related definitions 

  • Economic characteristics 

  • Migration & mobility (national & international) 

  • Household & family characteristics 

  • Sex & gender 

  • Housing topics 

  • Geospatial information and small area statistics for censuses 

  • Dissemination of disaggregated census data 

  • Communication and outreach. 

The task forces consist of representatives from national statistical offices, international organizations and universities: more than 150 experts altogether. With strong representation from the statistical office of the European Union (Eurostat) and the UN Statistics Division in New York, the project is leading the way in what will eventually become a worldwide update of international guidance for censuses. Several countries outside the UNECE region who are members of CES, such as Mexico, Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand, use the Recommendations and are now contributing to the revision project. 

The task forces will base their revisions not only on their own expertise, but on the results of a region-wide survey to be conducted among all the national statistical offices of the UNECE region later this year. Their findings and proposals will be scrutinized by the expert community, and by the Conference of European Statisticians, resulting in an updated set of Recommendations for the 2030 round of censuses to be published in 2025. 

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