After more than three years of delays, the Central Statistics Office is promising to start the population and housing census soon.

It must keep its word, and then everyone must participate by completing the required questionnaire as quickly as possible.

The exercise, which is traditionally completed each decade, collects essential statistics about the population. This information is crucial to the success of the Virgin Islands’ planning and development, especially at a time when the territory is recovering from a hurricane and pandemic that radically changed the make-up of the community.

If no one knows exactly who lives here, how can leaders properly administer public services like health care, education, infrastructure expansion, disaster assistance, and many others?

But in recent years, the planned census has been beset with delays, which the CSO blamed first on the fallout from Hurricane Irma and then on the pandemic.

It was finally scheduled to start last month, but then the CSO postponed it again with little explanation outside of a pledge to start soon.

The CSO and the rest of government must pull out all the stops to launch the exercise straightaway.

They also must ensure that it gets done right. This doubtlessly won’t be easy, given the challenges that have bedeviled census-takers in the past.

One of the main obstacles has been the territory’s unfortunate lack of a national addressing system (which itself has been promised and delayed for decades). Without addresses, census enumerators are hard pressed to reach everyone.

Another complication is the VI’s transient population, which is composed of about half expatriates. Additionally, some residents have expressed reluctance to provide information to the government for fear that it could be misused somehow.

Given these challenges, the government must redouble efforts to ensure that the CSO has everything it needs: enough enumerators; the technical support to automate the process and ensure that questionnaires don’t need to be counted by hand as in the past; adequate resources to educate the public; and the requisite funding to get the job done quickly and efficiently.

In the past, some of these factors were lacking, and it showed. Previous censuses, for instance, have included ambiguous information and statistics of questionable accuracy.

Census reports have also been egregiously delayed. The 2010 census report, for example, was not released to the public until 2014.

Such issues are not okay. The next census must be accurate and reliable, and it must be made public next year if not sooner.