Research
15.02.17

When you can’t count on the counting

Michaela Kreyenfeld says there's no political incentive for reliable German census data

As population size and change plays a considerable role in policymaking, reliable data is essential. But German municipalities and states have little political incentive to reform a process that currently produces unreliable results, Michaela Kreyenfeld said at the German Data Forum (RatSWD) Conference for Social and Economic Data in Germany on 8 February. 

Estimates of Germany’s population are based on the last census, plus and minus all subsequent births and deaths. People who migrate to Germany are added, and when they move abroad they are subtracted. The trouble is, Kreyenfeld said, some people fail to deregister when they leave the country. In times of high migration such as now, the population is frequently overestimated.

Germany’s system of financial transfers between states, by which wealthier states transfer funds to poorer states, is based on these numbers. “Based on the number of residents, which is drawn from the census and subsequent updating, state and municipal financial transfers are calculated. For states and municipalities every head counts,” said Kreyenfeld. “Why should politicians put their energy into reforms when exact numbers will only be punished with less money?”

Speaking on her recent paper, The Register-based Census in Germany: Historical Context and Relevance for Population Research (Comparative Population Studies, 31 August 2016), Kreyenfeld said that the last census, in 2011, revealed 1.5 million fewer residents in Germany than had been previously believed, for a population of 80.2 million. The next census is in 2021.

There are many reasons for this, Kreyenfeld said. “Overburdened agencies and difficulties implementing a deregistration requirement for people who move abroad,” are a few. “But above all, there is no will to keep the registry up to date. The crux of the matter is that the census is not just a matter of collecting data, it is a political issue.”

Switzerland has shown that things can be different, Kreyenfeld says. The Swiss used the last census to systematically clean up the register and merge it into a central location. This also created a new data for migration research. The motor behind this development was not least developments in e-governance, but also the will to create a new legal basis for registry research. But such a will to reform is lacking in Germany right now.

Despite the fact that the revision of the last census led to a federal outcry – especially in financially burdened Berlin, which had to repay part of its state transfers – there has been no real effort to tackle the issue. “The next census will, just as the last, bring few surprises: the data collected in the interim will not agree with the census and politicians will complain about the failure of statisticians to produce more exact data,” Kreyenfeld predicted.

Read an abstract about the panel discussion at the German Data Forum (RatSWD) Conference for Social and Economic Data here.

Read Michaela Kreyenfeld’s paper The Register-based Census in Germany: Historical Context and Relevance for Population Research (Comparative Population Studies, 31 August 2016)  here.   

More about Michaela Kreyenfeld