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Civic monitoring reveals numerous irregularities in BiH’s 2013 Census

popis monitorThe Census of Population, Households and Dwellings in Bosnia and Herzegovina 2013 started on October 1th and has officially ended on October 15th at 21h. Before and during the 2013. Census, PopisMonitor (CensusMonitor), a project of citizen-based monitoring of the census, has received numerous questions and inquieries from BiH citizens, but also many reports of irregularities which the citizens had encountered in census-taking process.

CensusMonitor started its info-campaign in September 2013, with direct street actions in 32 cities all over BiH, aiming to inform citizens and give them better insight into the census process, provide support in dealing with problems they might encounter, identify the key problems in the process and make an assessment of census’ integrity in terms of credibility and quality of gathered data, through direct contact with citizens.

Civic monitoring of 2013 Census was conducted through CensusMonitor team’s continuous communication with the citizens through street actions, online platforms (website, e-mail, social networks) and three telephone lines established solely for this purpose. So far, website had over 40.000 unique visitors, while the street actions provided an outlet for distribution of over 120.000 pieces of informative materials created by CensusMonitor’s team. CensusMonitor’s Facebook page is followed by more than 2.000 people, while its reach (the number of people who had seen the page) peaked at little less then 150.000 people. During and around the time census took place, CensusMonitor’s team made about a 100 appearences in various local, national and international media. Based on this data, it is estimated that CensusMonitor’s info-campaign managed to reach around 500.000 people, or 15% of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population.

During the census-taking process, CensusMonitor’s activists have replied to over 1.700 questions and inquiries, received through online platforms, phone lines and street actions.  Out of that number, 987 questions were received during street actions, over 600 was received by telephone, while the rest was asked and answered through the online platforms. Questions  most commonly asked were those related to „sensitive questions“ in the census form (questions 24, 25. and 26. on national/ethnic and religious identity and mother tongue), enumeration of persons absent from the country during the census, rights and responsibilities of enumerators, which legal penalties citizens might encounter, content of questions in the census form,  usage of personal data collected in the census, as well as secrecy and confidentiality of citizens’ personal data. Citizens expressed particular concern over the issue of whether or not they could be penalized if they are not enumerated through no fault of their own, in cases when enumerators and local census comissions failed to do their job properly. Many of them were also concerned about the way their personal data is going to be used. Since the public was not properly informed about the census, many citizens, especially those living outside of BiH, had expressed anxiety over possibility of losing their residence, citizenship, right to vote, personal assets in BiH, or having some other legal consequences based on the data collected through the census. This was a direct result of state institutions’ failure to properly and timely inform the public on the fact that personal data collected through the census can only be used for statistical purposes and mustn’t be connected to any other database kept by the state.

Due to severly belated and inadequate info-campaign by BiH Statistical Agency and statistical institutes of the two entities, large number of citizens wasn’t properly informed on the census process, which is clearly visible from the CensusMonitor’s preliminary results. Official informative campaign of the institutions in charge of running the whole process, was launched just few days before the census started, the information presented through the campaign was not substantial, and Agency’s website wasn’t optimized for an average internet user, thus failing to provide relevant information in a user-friendly way (for example, a lot of relevant information was only given in a form of large PDF documents which are hard to navigate through, making a process of finding one specific information very tiresome and complicated).  Additionally, the Agency’s Call Center started working only 4 days before the census begun, at which time CensusMonitor’s activists have already been receiving dozens of inquiries from the citizens on daily bases. Also, during the two weeks when census took place, Call Center has been operational only at work-days from 8 am to 5 pm, although the census was being conducted every day from 9 am to 9 pm. This means that, during the census, out of 180 hours of field activities of enumerators, the Call center was only available to the citizens for 99 hours.

These, as well as other omissions in the process of informing the citizens by the institutions in charge of the census, had a significant influence on the large number of inquiries directed to CensusMonitor. In the absence of a proper informative campaign and insufficient availability of official institutions to the citizens, CensusMonitor was seen as a place of reference by the citizens and we are truly grateful for the trust they have shown us. Many of these citizens were not properly informed on the census, or they encountered various problems, some of them even being directly discriminated in the process, because the official institutions failed to protect their rights and had remained silent to their questions and/or complaints.

An illustrative example of state institutions’ attitude towards the problems recorded during the census, can be found in public statements of BiH Statistical Agency officials during the time the census was being conducted. From day one, they kept repeating that the process is going smoothly and that no major issues have been reported. On the final day of the census, the Agency’s director stated, during the official press-conference, that the Agency – the main institution in charge of the census – had only registered three cases of breahes in census legislation and methodology and acted accordingly, sanctioning those responsible and repeating the census in certain enumeration units. Based on previous media reports, we can assume that he was refering to repeating the census in five enumeration units in the region of Srebrenica, where the three cases of severe irregularities  were reported (an enumerator filling out the questionaries in the public restaurant, as well as two cases of both successfull and unsuccessfull attempts to move the census forms across the state border with Serbia, in both directions). Agency had no comment or reaction whatsoever to all the other irregularities which were being reported during the previous 15 days. On the same day, the Agency’s spokeswoman stated that „neither the Agency, nor the Central Census Bureau, had received any official report of any kind of irregularities“.

At the same time, CensusMonitor had already received over 850 reports of irregularities of different kinds from 45 municipalities in BiH, most of them coming from Sarajevo, Tuzla, Banja Luka, Srebrenica, Prijedor, Gradiška, Trebinje and Mostar. Most of these reports came through our telephone lines (458 of them), while our online-form on the website was used to report 205 problems which citizens encountered during the census. The rest of the reports came through e-mail and our Facebook page. After the census had ended, we kept receiving numerous reports from the citizens who were never visited by the enumerators and have thus remained unenumerated. We received over 50 such reports from 14 different municipalities, some of them even coming from centers of big urban areas, such as Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, Bihać and Banja Luka.

Almost half of the issues reported were related to improper conduct of enumerators (41,52% of overall reports), covering various procedure transgressions (the enumerators never came to the household, leaving it unenumerated; the enumerators came when the household was empty and did leave the notification, but then never appeared at scheduled time; conducting the census at public places instead of the households; enumerator’s behavior during the census-taking in the households, etc.). A high rate of received reports (24,19%) refered to unlawfull treatment of sensitive questions in the census form, specifically question 24. on ethnicity/nationality. Procedure infringements in this segment have had different forms and intensities, ranging from enumerators making inappropriate comments on person’s declaration of his or her ethnicity; making suggestions and trying to persuade them to change their answer, all the way to enumerators „skipping“ this question and entering the answer themselves without even showing it to the surveyed person; asking the question but refusing to enter the given answer into the census form; filling out this question themselves and refusing to discard the incorrectly filled form and fill out a new one in accordance to the person’s answer, etc . The conduct of municipal census commissions was the subject od 13,72% reports, dealing mostly with the commissions handling the census process in unprofessional manner (the commissions being closed during work hours, inappropriate behavior towards both citizens and enumerators in cases when they tried to file a complaint, discriminatory treatment of people based on their ethnicity, etc.). Citizens had also reported irregularities in the process of hiring the enumerators, breaches of personal data secrecy protection and, in a small percent, presence of unauthorized persons during the enumeration process.

The enumerators have mostly been reporting problems with signing the contracts and statements of confidentiality and unprofessional conduct of municipal census commisssions, but many of them were also dissatissfied with their instructors, who, in some reported cases, refused to do the required fieldwork with the enumerators, failed to take the enumerator through their enumeration units and introduce them to the „terrain“ (which was a very big problem for those who were conducting the census in unfamiliar and distant areas), or failed to properly train the enumerators (some of them receiving no training at all). In some cases, the enumerators themselves have reported organized attempts to manipulate census data by the municipal commissions (for example, recently reported case of a municipal commission stating that those households which refused to participate in the census, will be enumerated by  the commission itself, by using data from police databases).

Around 90% of the reports came from different enumeration units and depicted problems of systemic nature (meaning that the nature of the reported problem indicates a very strong probability that the enumerator repeated the same improper practice in the entire unit he/she was covering). This data indicates that census’ legitimacy and credibility has been seriously compromised in over 500 enumeration units, which, in average, equals 50.000 households, or 100.000 individual census forms.

Taking into consideration that CensusMonitor’s online and offline campaign had an estimated reach of 500.000 people, it can be concluded that significant transgressions in census taking procedures were recorded in around 20% of the entire number of people covered by the campaign. Since the sample of 500.000 people is more then representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, this raises a justified suspicion that around 20% of census forms in the BiH 2013 Census can be considered invalid.

Given all these examples and results which CensusMonitor has had so far, it is quite impossible to believe the aforementioned statement of Zdenko Milinović, the head of BiH Statistical Agency, on „only three cases of breaking census’ laws and methodology“. Additionaly, at the same press-conference Milinović had also stated that the Agency „followed through with all the neccessary elements of personal data protection of all the citizens“. This statement rings even less true than the previous one, since multiple breaches of these laws and regulations were revealed on the very first day of the census, when it was discovered that local census commissions didn’t even consider, much less provide, secure storage spaces for safekeeping of census material. Instead of being stored in secure locations, provided specifically for this purpose with access allowed only to limited personnel as required by the law, the census forms were „stored“ in private homes of the enumerators, where they were taking both the blank and the filled-out forms after their daily work was done. This is in direct breach of both the Law on Census and the Law on personal data protection, since the forms, containing various personal data of BiH citizens, were kept with no oversight whatsoever and could be accessed by tens of thousands of unauthorized persons. Adding to that the fact that most of the enumerators didn’t even sign the statements of confidentiality (let alone the contracts) before they started working on 2013. census (some of them weren’t even offered to sign it until the very end of the process), we come to the astonishing conclusion that, for the large part of the census-taking process, even the enumerators themselves weren’t legally obliged to keep citizens’ personal data confidential. In light of all these facts, the news of estimated one million of census forms „dissapppearing“ in the entity of Republika Srpska was hardly surprising. The „dissappearance“ of census forms forced the state Agency to urgently print 50.000 new forms, because the enumerators, left without the required material, coulnd’t complete their work in the enumeration units they were supposed to cover. To this date, the public hasn’t been informed on what happenned to the missing census forms and how they could simply „dissappear“.

As for the central location for storage of census material, where all the census forms should have been stored at the end of the whole process, the storage space was rented at October 9th, only six days prior to the Census closing date. On October 15th (census’ closing date) Mirsada Adembegović, spokeswoman for the state statistical agency, announced that the census material won’t be distributed to the central storage untill next week, adding that the Agency still hasn’t employed the neccessary personnel for the central storage unit to become fully functional (the estimated number of requried employees is around 300). She also added that census forms will be transferred to the central storage „from the municipal census commissions“ – although the forms were never stored in their premises to begin with. This adds to the statement  she gave on the second day of census when, confronted with the public outrage on the fact that census material was being taken to enumerators’ homes, she falsely claimed that this practice is only endorsed in cases when enumerators are working in distant areas, and that census forms are only kept at enumerators’ homes at night and brought to the commissions’ premises the very next day. This claim was proven to be false on the same day when the statement was given, but the Agency never issued an apology, or even an explanation for falsly informing the public on such an important matter.

Legal provisions regarding personal data protection weren’t the only ones broken by the institutions in charge of the census process.  None of the enumerators who were conducting the census were offered to sign a legal contract before the census started, and many haven’t signed it untill the census was almost done. Prior to census’ ending, CensusMonitor recorded a sharp increase in number of reports filed by the enumerators themselves, mostly on the subject of their (illegal) work-status, some of them even reporting that, at a time when all of their work was already completed, they were offered to “give up on the job” because of these issues. The sheer absurdity of the fact that the state institutions had illegally employed cca. 20.000 people for census-related jobs, propelled no reaction from the authorities at all, although any employer that makes this kind of violation should be legally sanctioned. Aside from the fact that the enumerators have been, for the most time of census’ duration, illegaly working for the state, there has been a clear discontent with the process from the enumerators even before the census begun. Only 6 days before the census, the public was informed that some 18% of selected and already trained enumerators have pulled out of the job, dissatisfied with working conditions, low sallaries and uncertainty of when and whether their wages will be payed. Because of such high number of people quitting the job before it even started, a significant number of enumerators was hired just days before the census was officially launched, receiving little or no training in that short period of time.

There were also other breaches of legal duties by the institutions. For example, the state Agency for statistics and entitites’ statistical institutes still haven’t signed the protocol which is, among other things, supposed to determine the terms and conditions of how the data collected through the census will be used, with emphasis on the sensitive issue of how the (already compromised) personal data, not relevant for statistical purpose, will be disposed of.

Taking all this into consideration, it is justifiable to ask if the data provided by the census will have any relevance at all for their intended original purpose. The census is supposed to be the most relevant statistical survey done by the state. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has a special significance bearing in mind that the country, due to political controversies around drafting and adopting the Law on census of population, households and dwellings in BiH, hasn’t conducted the census since 1991. If it the census was properly conducted, it would have, for the first time, provided the state with reliable data for development planning and creating the economic, social, health, educational and other policies. Instead, we were given an utterly mishandled and unprepared process, compromised by serious breaches of laws and regulations on part of the institutions whose job was to ensure that these rules are followed, and severe omissions in all the steps of the way, from poorly implemented informative campaign, to the institutions’ complete disregard of all the reported misdemeanors and manipulations which followed the process from day one.

It is impossible to justify the fact that the institutions in charge not only agreed to enter this process without securing basic conditions for its legal and legitimate conduct, but also stayed completely silent to all the reports of irregularities which had repeatedly sparked public outrage in the past few weeks. With the exception of just one employee, who did publicly identify all the problems compromising the census’ integrity and confirmed that census is not being conducted in accordance to the law – and has consequently been pulled out of the public eye – the Agency kept repeating that the census is progressing according to the plan, while at the same time the public was, day after day, buzzing with new shocking details on census’ transgressions.  It’s even harder to understand and justify the attitude of International Monitoring Operation in all this. Despite the fact that it was supposed to serve as an impartial and independent observer of the process, the IMO had sided with the Agency in its absurd claims on census’ supposedly satisfactory conduct, completely ignoring the evident and unjustifiable law-breaking by the institutions themselves, as well as numerous irregularities reported from the field. Considering the IMO’s and Agency’s expertise, one has to wonder why haven’t they even made an attempt to truthfully answer at least some of many questions raised in this report and in the general public? And, if everything has really been going as well as they claim, why did they respond to these “false allegations” with silence, instead of explaining to the public, from an experts’ point of view, why do they consider all the reported misdemeanors so irrelevant for census’ integrity, that they never even expressed a single doubt, let alone a serious concern, that census isn’t beeing conducted properly? It is also very telling that the representatives of the Agency had steered clear of any public confrontation with CensusMonitor’s activists, while the representatives of IMO never attempted to meet us and discuss all the reported issues, although we were the only local initiative acting as an independent monitor of the process through direct civic engagement. One can speculate on the reasons for such behaviour, but one thing is certain – all those in charge of the census failed to demonstrate at least a minimum of accountability to citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina in any part of this process.

In the end, CensusMonitor’s team would once again like to express its gratitude to the citizens of BiH, whose reports and enquiries gave us an invaluable insight into the way the BiH 2013. Census was being conducted in the field. Aside from being thankful to BiH citizens for having trust in our work, we also feel regret for not being able to help many of them solve the problems they encountered, because the institutions in charge failed to do their job according to the laws and regulations. We sincerely hope that citizens whose rights were violated in the process, will find at least some satisfaction in the fact that the problems they reported to the CensusMonitor were documented and presented to the public, even though the institutions in charge continue to deny that any of them ever occured.