Between technological advances and attacks to basic rights: on the consequences of improvised digitization of population censuses

Insights from the roundtable: “Challenges of the 2020 census round in Latin America”- XXII National Meeting of the Brazilian Association of Population Studies.

Byron Villacis
November 2022

COVID-19 provoked increasing pressure to adopt technological advances in population censuses. In some cases, preliminary evaluations show that the adoptions were not sufficiently justified and had unintended consequences. Particularly in segments of the Global South, Statistical Offices (SOs) adopted innovations as a consequence of (1) a rush to produce population data immediately after the pandemic, (2) transnational pressures to adopt global trends, (3) overestimated effects of monetary savings to accommodate SOs to austerity tensions, and (4) the necessity to adopt standardized models of censuses to produce data for markets instead of data for development. The adoption of technological advances happened amid an institutional transition. In the last two decades, SOs have shifted the census goals from coverage and quality to an array of organizational and relational markers.

The Transition

Practitioners in the field are familiar with the idea that population censuses are not homogenous. Among other reasons, the performance changes according to the strength or weakness of the local SO, the nature of the relation with national powers, the organizational, economic, and political stability, the legitimacy of authorities, and social forces that produce local and transnational styles of statistical reasoning (Porter 2011). The complexity of these factors is amplified when considering temporal and geopolitical dynamics.

Due to this inertia, censuses have been altering their original objectives in the last two decades. A “good census” was traditionally evaluated in terms of coverage and quality. Those parameters were measured through Post Enumeration Surveys (PES) and Demographic Analysis (DE); some of these evaluations were carried out by the same SO or associated entities. A significant difference between SOs in the Global North with the Global South is that in the former, these evaluations were (and still are) the subject of open and dispersed discussions outside official walls. In the latter, the reports are barely shared or discussed, becoming the input of closed meetings between discreet circles of regional expertise.

This orthodoxy witnessed the arrival of two waves of organizational change. Since the early 2000s, censuses have been increasingly evaluated by (1) organizational performance and (2) relational characteristics. The first is the case of evaluations related to efficiency and efficacy. These parameters usually attempt to answer questions such as: How much does the census cost? How expensive is it when compared to similar experiences in the region? How expensive is compared to previous versions? Did the census achieve pre-defined objectives in terms of participation? Legitimacy? Strengthening institutional capacities? The second is the case of questionings related to organizational characteristics visible in a comparative perspective: Did the SO innovate according to global trends? Did it gain prestige? Did the it improve its influence?

This extended framework transformed the census into a different animal. Before the transition, the census was mainly understood as a techno-bureaucratic practice comprehended by a few learned donnish with a mystique combination of skills based on antiquated statistical techniques and meticulous bureaucratic procedures. Usually, the experts learned their skills from decades-long exposition with local and transnational tenured bureaucrats. The census was the outcome of a complex potion only accessible to those with a small but specialized network of expertise. The trifling attempt to understand any piece of the process from secular individuals provoked the interpretation of trying to access a sacred black box. It was only possible to understand the details for those with the time, patience, and bureaucratic capital to comprehend the procedures constructed through years of ill-fated documentation. Of course, there were countries qualified as exceptions, but particularly in the Global South, nothing that can be counted as regularities.

The first transition came with a new logic of organizational criteria for evaluating the census. Trends in public administration –consequence of modernization reforms and theorized by the New Public Management (Savoie 2006)– imposed the need to talk, document, and evaluate the cost of the census. The word “austerity” was increasingly used: the census was now part of a basket of neoliberal objects of governance that required a re-engineering process based on quantitative assessments such as cost-benefit analysis (Spencer et al. 2017). These were the days when international bureaucrats and development experts revitalized the need to see the census as a paradigm of civility, social cohesion, identity, and even nationalism. Under this framework, the census required a new type of evaluation: (1) efficiency to comply with the challenges of austerity and (2) efficacy to integrate a set of goals adjusted to execution models.

Due to this transition, local bureaucrats identified the need to amplify their skills to topics such as public accounting, cost-benefit analysis, and impact evaluations. Some professional diversification was also compulsory: anthropologists, sociologists, public accountants, and lawyers were demanded. A good census required to amplify their skills to the capacity to spread knowledge to communicate the costs within the government, including unitary prices, compliance with standards, and quantification of participatory processes. At some moments, the black box was contested and audited, but the core of the concern was a struggle to satisfy local political powers. It was also the time to be familiarized with loans from International Organizations, always predisposed to fund the census. These financial operations included administrative and technical interventions to ‘verify’ if the money was correctly spent. In practice, those interventions implied methodological and administrative impositions.

The second transition came accompanied by globalizing forces, increasingly competitive expertise, aggressive openings to transnational markets, revolving doors, and the popularization of worldwide rankings. SOs are now required to be influential, innovative, modern, and respectable. These characteristics are only visible in a relational sense, that is, in a comparative framework. The challenge of the bureaucracy achieved the second level of complication: the division of labor included now professionals with expertise in public relationships, politics, corporative communications, social networks, and lobbying. The traditional evaluation of a census in terms of coverage and quality was now considered part of a long list of goals with ambiguous priorities. Without exaggerating, for some people, it is more important to introduce a trendy technological advance than to have a decent percentage of coverage.

A new typology of an expert in the public sector

This transition was also accompanied by a new type of professional statistical expertise. The outcome of the double shift provoked that traditional public statisticians are now explicitly challenged by young data science experts who can process enormous datasets in fractions of seconds. The old bureaucrat of middle and old ages are displaced by young technocrats eternally integrated to laptops and smartphones, always alert to social networks and ready to comply with cosmopolitan lifestyles.

It is necessary to clarify that the professional and institutional transition did not imply a change from a puritan group of effective but slow apparatus to a malefic and aggressively competitive machinery. Instead, the conversion was between dense mixtures of complexity facing distinctive contemporary challenges. Without erasing previous convolutions, the transition added layers of organizational density: one that is inserted in logics of efficacy and efficiency and a second one that implied relational challenges of comparative innovation and influence.

In the middle of this transition was the people: the society that was supposed to co-produce the census. Hypothetically, the census is a tool to produce a moment of cooperation, recognition, and sensibilization of nation-building. Beyond the romanticism of the approach, the census was supposed to be a space of collective self-recognition and self-reproduction. Even the physicality of the experience in the traditional census implied a conversation, an exchange, a conscious or unconscious reflection of shared values within the society. At some point in the last two decades, some experts decided it was better to change. The census was considered better if it the more discreet, silent, unnoticeable. There are likely positive outcomes from less invasive experiences, but we did not have enough time to discuss the costs associated with the transition. I argue that the shift did not bring us a more transparent census; it created a more prominent black box composed of expertise(s) able to be intrusive, dangerous, and silent. The census is no longer about counting people; it’s about being functional to the state. And the state can be an array of agents that go from a clumsy machinery to an authoritarian apparatus. Bureaucrats dedicated to the census must recognize that they are cogs of the mechanism, for good or evil.

The Method as An End

It would be naïve to think that this transition left the composition of census stakeholders unaltered. If nostalgia has something to rescue is that old versions used to allocate more consideration and time to the social legitimation of the operation. The new version seems more interested in conquering the blessing of international organizations, political and commercial brokers, and anybody helping with the transnational mobilization of professionals. A «good” census is no longer one that is useful for public policies; it also has to satisfy checklists from market researchers, IOs, and regional bureaucracies. In the best of scenarios, the group of stakeholders got amplified; in the worst, replaced.

It is in this context that the last technological transitions are introduced. They are inserted not necessarily because of necessities attached to the project; but as a consequence of transnational trends of innovation, impulses from commercial and professional brokers, and outcomes of political struggles. We have argued about the mechanisms elsewhere (Villacis et al. 2021). These introductions answer to new stakeholders’ necessities: census operations interested in extracting information for commercial and political ends in a powerful, silent, and uncontested way.

The method, then, is susceptible to be designed in offices of metropolises, usually in a hierarchical way. The procedures tend to underestimate the importance of having a legitimized operation. What matters is the production of a dataset, the introduction of innovation, and the compliance of corporative demands. The victims of this dynamic are vulnerable groups who depend on the census to subsist: indigenous, afros, and any ethnic minority that depends on the official quantification to exert collective rights. The co-production of categories, campaigns for self-recognition, spaces of conciliation, and logistical coordination to participate in the census is now an inferior priority. At the end of the day, why bother trying to legitimize an imperceptible census? Under the new logic, the solution to the dispute is simple: erase the conflict.

Only then we can understand why some population censuses introduce technological and operative changes that otherwise make no sense. In the Ecuadorian case, for example, the SO decided to include the unique identification number document (cédula de identidad) as a mandatory question to fill out the census. In theoretical terms, the introduction of the cedula is part of strategy to digitize the census. The ‘innovation’ was taken to such an extreme that, when it was the case of public servants, the SO decided is a good idea to send official letters threatening with sanctions if you did not answer all the questions. For some analysts, it is just a mere ambition to deliver to the state more information to control the population. For others, it was an innovation with the intention of producing a seductive dataset for commercial ends in a country controlled by a banker (the current president).

As was expected, this decision provoked legal, political, and communicational complaints from ethnic, political, and civic activists against the use of a unique identifier (cédula de identidad). Judicial actions have been filed, including the rejection of the role of the World Bank in a rare and obscure process of funding the census. The people co-producing the census now seem secondary: for the bureaucracy in charge, the census is an objective to obtain political approval inside and outside the country; for traditionally excluded social groups, the census is a local struggle to avoid exclusion, invisibilities, and abuse.

The balance in this dynamic is tentatively composed of five characteristics: (1) we now have a census worried about efficiency and efficacy, (2) it is driven by technocratic forces which tend to disregard or misrecognize their social and political role, (3) local bureaucracies are affected by dynamics interested in technological transnational trends, (4) actors are obsessed to produce data for markets and not necessarily for development strategies and (5) censuses are consciously or unconsciously promoting the movement of national planning from peripheral centers to metropolises. Technology is embedded within these forces; isolating them as mere functional devices is dangerously naïve.

It is fair to propose a specific way out to improve this meager scenario. Countries in the Global South should not rush to run censuses quickly after a traumatic process such as the pandemic. They can use the delay provoked by the pandemic to redesign and execute their cartographic update, re-legitimize their methodology, and avoid external pressures to borrow and adopt technologies not necessary useful in their institutional contexts. The challenge is to strengthen the SOs with talented people with stable and decent jobs so that they can appreciate the need to design operations that do good for the country and not necessarily for professional interests. Development and technical cooperation agencies should not be demonized either. They have made a positive and stable contribution; however, if there is something they need, it is to be more effective in building lasting local census capacities, not just every ten years or when an extreme emergency emerges.


Porter, Theodore M. 2011. The Rise of Statistical Thinking: 1820 – 1900. Nachdr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Savoie, Donald J. 2006. “What Is Wrong with the New Public Management.” Comparative Public Administration: The Essential Readings 593.

Spencer, Bruce D., Julian May, Steven Kenyon, and Zachary Seeskin. 2017. “Cost-Benefit Analysis for a Quinquennial Census: The 2016 Population Census of South Africa.” Journal of Official Statistics 33(1):249–74. doi: 10.1515/jos-2017-0013.

Villacis, Byron, Alena Thiel, Daniel Capistrano, and Christyne Carvalho da Silva. 2022. “Statistical Innovation in the Global South: Mechanisms of Translation in Censuses of Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana and Sierra Leone.” Comparative Sociology 21(4):419–46. doi: 10.1163/15691330-bja10060.

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