Opinion article

Lessons learnt from the 2016 Census

Prior to his upcoming CEDA address on 12 September on the 2016 Census, Australian Bureau of Statistics Chief Statistician, David Kalisch gives a preview of the discussion, sharing insights on leadership in the public sector and lessons learnt from the 2016 Census experience.

For many people, mention the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and their immediate thought is the five-yearly Census of Population and Housing. While it is the largest statistical collection undertaken by the ABS, it is only one of the 500 statistical reports the organisation releases each year – with around two major statistical products released every working day. In 2016–17 alone, there were more than 15 million visits to the ABS website and more than three million data downloads. The production of consistent, timely and trusted official statistics is the bedrock of evidence for business, policy, research and political decision-making as well as the evaluation of government program and service delivery.

The ABS has an enduring, strong, intrinsic value proposition to inform important decisions; to maximise public value from the resources we are given. The organisation does this in an environment of:
  • Rapidly expanding information demands;
  • Ageing infrastructure that is being replaced over a five-year program; and
  • Changing expectations around what our staff will need to do.
The ABS also does this with 20 per cent less funding and staff than 15 years ago. Against this backdrop, the ABS is transforming the way it operates to enhance its value proposition to government, business and the Australian people. Two years into the ABS’ transformation program, progress has been substantial. For example, it has improved the measurement of the economy, the labour market and productivity. It is integrating data to produce new statistics that provide essential policy insight into issues, such as the importance of small- and medium-sized enterprises to employment growth and innovation across the economy, outcomes for migrants and estimating the impact of education and industry programs funded by governments
The challenge for the ABS is to deliver quality, timely official statistics while also transforming business operations on so many fronts. So, while the organisation’s key data users – and the broader community – expect quality statistics today, the ABS also needs to be ready to meet their needs of tomorrow.

There were a lot of lessons from the 2016 Census – and not just through the online challenges experienced on Census night.

First, some context. Over 95 per cent of Australia’s occupied households completed the Census; 4.9 million households completed the Census online – 2.2 million before the outage and 2.7 million after it was restored. Those who used the e-Census facility found it quick and easy – the online form reduced the time taken by households by 70 per cent compared to paper.

On 27 June this year, the ABS released data from the 2016 Census of Population and Housing – 68.9 million pieces of data, 2.8 million tables of data, 30,000 detailed community profiles and 80,000 QuickStats. The quality of the data was scrutinised and assessed by an Independent Assurance, which found the 2016 Census data was fit-for-purpose and could be used with confidence. Its quality was comparable to the previous high quality Australian Censuses in 2011 and 2006 and Australians could have trust and faith in 2016 Census data. And in a further endorsement, the panel said this changed approach to the Census and its further refinement would secure a high quality and financially sustainable Census into the future.

Many of the lessons from the 2016 Census are also pertinent to the public sector generally and also the private sector.

The ABS did not effectively manage the complexity and risk of the change process being implemented in the five years leading up to 2016. Some of the most pointed lessons are, naturally, from Census night itself when the 2016 Census online form was the target of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Difficulties accessing the call centre and the unavailability of the Census form online for nearly two days tested the patience and commitment of many households.

Subsequently, we at the ABS made the decision to take the system offline on 9 August to ensure the security of Census data. The system should have been sufficiently robust to withstand DDoS events.

Among the many learnings from the 2016 Census, we now know a great deal about meeting the service delivery expectations of the public around a major event that is all-encompassing in its coverage of the community over a very short time period.

The ABS was hurt by the Census events. As an organisation, we pride ourselves on getting everything right, first time every time. But one aspect that stands out is that rather than becoming self-absorbed by the process and its problems, we came together marvellously as an organisation. We have some very “match-hardened” professionals that learnt from and responded to the Census night events, and this can only serve us well in the future.

These lessons are reshaping the ABS transformation program:
  • Rebuilding stakeholder relationships;
  • Recognising cyber security as a contemporary risk operating in a digital world and where information security and privacy are paramount;
  • Building risk management maturity; Diversifying our workforce; Drawing upon greater external expertise and engagement and building more internal collaboration; and Continuing the ambitious upgrade of our IT and business processes for the statistical systems.

On 12 September 2017, Mr Kalisch will be at CEDA’s Breakfast on the Run talking about leadership in the public sector and what he’s learnt from the 2016 Census experience. 
About the authors

David Kalisch

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David Kalisch was appointed the 15th Australian Statistician on 11 December 2014. As Agency Head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics he is accountable for the functions and operations of the Bureau. He has also been appointed as the non-judicial member of the Australian Electoral Commission. Mr Kalisch is an economist with public sector experience in research and analysis, policy development and service delivery. 

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