Census and sensibility (1)

Bulgaria Census 2011


Bulgaria was the first EU country to hold a national census in 2011. For the first time, there was an option to complete the questionnaire online, or to stick with filling in a hard-copy document. The online option was available from 1st. to 9th. February, and the final date for filing paper submissions was 28th. February.

Over 3 million opted to fill in their applications online, representing a good 40% of respondents. Most were in the 20-29 year bracket, but 9.4% of people aged 70 or more also used this option. 91% of online respondents lived in cities or towns – unsurprisingly, given the still-developing status of national online access.

Interestingly, Bulgaria is one of only seven EU countries to offer the online service this year, when all 27 member states will hold a national census.

Shrinking population

Some preliminary (and provisional) results have been announced, and a full analysis is promised sometime in July. The shocking headline is that, since the last census in 2001, the population of Bulgaria has fallen by about half a million people. EurActiv reports that Bulgaria’s population declined by “582,000 people over the last ten years… The EU newcomer, who has now [sic] 7,351,633 inhabitants, has lost 1.5 million of its population since 1985.” [1]

This significant fall in numbers is principally attributed to two factors: emigration, and a collapse in the birth rate, when allied to overall mortality. It confirms that Bularia has, according to existing EU statistics, the worst rate of depopulation in the 27-nation bloc. Sadly, the census records the total depopulation of 186 villages (no census returns), while the number of inhabitants in the capital, Sofia, has increased by 78,000, from 1,270,284, 10 years ago. Almost three-quarters of Bulgarians now live in urban areas.

What will the census tell Bulgaria?

The online form [2] consisted of eight pages, with some 34 sections [EN PDF sample here]. Ominously, the supporting notes spread to 45 pages, but (mercifully) were not really needed. One contentious point was the inclusion of references to “the head of the household / family”, seen by some as old-fashioned and sexist.

The only other serious controversy that seemed to emerge was when the Holy Synod, representing the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, publicly urged all Bulgarians to answer the optional questions on religion by affirming firstly that they were “religious”, and secondly that they were “East Orthodox” in their faith. Political parties that have affiliations with ethnic and / or religious minorities, for once, kept silent. There were also reports of a Romanian or Moldovan NGO distributing pamphlets in some northern regions of Bulgaria, urging citizens to describe themselves as “Romanian” – that’s another story!

Sections concerning employent were generally unobtrusive, unlike those (apparently) in the UK census. On the other hand, respondents were asked detailed questions about domestic facilities and “durables” –  “availability of toilet, of kitchen”, type of TV (aerial, cable, satellite), cooker, car/minibus, country house/summer house, etc.. But, all in all, quite an uncontentious form to have to fill in! A pleasant change, here.

Logistics not perfect, but…

Although the entire process seems to have worked quite well, there were inevitably some problems and complaints,.Whereas useful information was published online in January (even in English), the official census site closed for some hours immediately before midnight on 1st. February. Early applicaants complained of delays in receiving their reference number by email / online, which meant they could not proceed to complete the form. This, to be fair, was quickly fixed.

When we went online a couple of days later, there were no delays or any other problems, including the prompt despatch of an electronic receipt of completion – and no, there was no “timed out” phenomenon, as in UK!. There were a couple of critical limitations as to who could actually apply online. For example, although I have an official residence status and number, I was not elegible, not being a full Bulgarian citizen. (This resolved any argument as to who the “head of the family/household” might be!)

There was a knock-on to that online restriction. In some areas with a concentration of ex-pats, support services in English were promised; it seems this didn’t go to plan, specifically with the provision of English-speaking interviewers to oversee completion of paper returns. As for our own experience of the follow-up census staff, it was quick and easy. Some  40,000 census-takers were employed to vist all households across Bulgaria during the “paper” period after the online facility closed. Our own encounter was brief: all we had to do was show the person our electronic receipt – hello, thank you and goodbye!

Census costs

The entire operation was estimated to cost about BGN 28 mn (€14.3 mn) [3]. The number of online submissions apparently saved the budget some BGN 3-4 million. And, if we’d refused to participate? The fine was BGN 120, just over €60.

Cynical census post-script

A Bulgarian publication recently carried a topical joke [4].

Q: Why has Bulgaria’s government launched a nationwide census?
A: To make sure they don’t skip anybody when wiretapping.

Source [1]: EurActiv

Source [2]: Bulgarian National Statistical Institute

Source [3]: Europost

Source [4]: SNA


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