Census 2016 Case Study Part 1

Executive Summary | Introduction

This is a case study of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2016 online census project as a portrait of complete management failure by government, the ABS, and its principal contractor, IBM. The case study is split over several pages because of its length. The table of contents below offers quick navigation to the various sections. Scroll down to read the contents of this section.

Census 2016 case study introductionExecutive Summary

Analysis of publicly known factors affecting the 2016 Australian online census project reveals leadership failure and management incompetence within the organisational structures of the three principal actors – government, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), and IBM.

Examined from the perspectives of professionals, informed citizens, and self-interested shareholders, all conventional wisdom about strategic management, public affairs management, enterprise architecture, project management, IT service management, and business process management was ignored.

At the highest level, the failure of the online census system is directly attributable to a deliberate government policy of under-resourcing the ABS, either in ignorance of the outcomes, or in pursuit of a calculated intention to produce failure as a necessary precursor to outsourcing or privatising the ABS and its functions. This would have serious ramifications for the integrity of Australian democracy, which is represented according to electorate sizes and by numbers sourced from the ABS census of population and housing.

The bureau abandoned direct control and sufficient supervisory functions to ensure expected project execution, leaving it badly placed to understand, react to, or report on the failures which occurred on 9 August 2016. Without an understanding arising from professional management controls it is unlikely the organisation can learn from its mistakes and avoid repeating them in future.

If an object after the fact is to attribute blame for the online census failure, the principal responsibility rests with successive governments and their poor budgeting, leadership, and oversight practices.

The ABS cannot escape censure either. Its management structure is dictatorial and inflexible, leaving its senior executives no room to avoid accepting responsibility for their apparent incompetence in managing the project. By extension, the entire public sector might well be hamstrung by the same management deficiencies.

IBM does not escape the taint of having cheated the Australian public for being profit-motivated.

As the principal contractor, IBM’s responsibilities in project architecture, governance, and management are not clear because of contractual confidentiality, but it appears that it failed every test of delivering a fit-for-purpose solution. IBM may defend itself from suspicion of incompetence by insisting on its right to act as a purely profit-motivated mercenary in an environment of government favour for outsourcing, and the transparent, exploitable inability by the ABS to effectively supervise its contractor.

The lesson for government and the ABS appears to be that their 19th century management paradigm, aligned with industrial era engineering and manufacturing conventions, is ill suited to producing knowledge products in a 21st century information economy. Both are exposed as gullible targets for sharp practices by private sector operators looking to cash in on an ideological flirtation with outsourcing and privatisation.

On a more positive note, improvement in leadership and management performance from such as low base ought to be easy to achieve, beginning with some of the issues raised in this analysis.
The lesson for IBM is less clear. The transnational corporation possesses the leadership and management skills to have grown into an international giant, and to have survived decades of change and competition. It is unlikely that IBMs senior management did not know precisely what it was delivering, and the risks in doing so. The challenge for IBM, and other companies like it, will be whether their purely extractive business models will continue to attract credulous clients, and disastrous failures will continue to attract no market reaction or legal censure.

Postscript: in November 2016 a Senate inquiry made recommendations that are largely aligned with the conclusions presented here, including especially that the Federal Government must share a large part of the blame for under-resourcing the ABS census function. See ABC reportage here, SBS reportage here, the Australian Financial Review reportage here, and the Sydney Morning Herald’s reportage here.

Census 2016 case study introductionIntroduction

Few recent events have linked the business of government, private sector business practices, and the nature of democracy quite so tellingly as Australia’s pioneering project to create an online data collection system for the 2016 census of population and housing.


Controversy about privacy concerns and technology failings have ensured wide media coverage but most attention has been focused on technical failure and there has not yet been a case study examining the wider failures of government, the ABS, business, and professionalism that are exposed by the census fiasco.

Because of the publicity generated by controversy, there is a danger of subverting an analysis with uncritical repetition of politically partisan points of view. However, there is an even bigger danger of invalidating an analysis by not exposing politically partisan factors for the sake of affecting a faux objectivity. The reality of the case is that politics played a major part in the events and outcomes.

To make the conclusions presented here transparent, and to emphasise that they are subject to reader assessment, three critical perspectives on the events in question are offered: the first is from a professional viewpoint, examining management practices evident in, or absent from, the census project; the second is that of an informed citizen observing public debate about the events; and the third is that of a ‘citizen as shareholder’ – a model casting Australians as self-interested shareholders focused solely on value. This third perspective is based on a political discourse favoured by politicians looking to justify unpopular decisions with the mantle of budget rectitude.

This case study presents a background to the events leading up to and following the online census project before offering a professional management analysis of the online census project process, including, in alphabetical order, specific focus on:

  • business process management;
  • enterprise architecture;
  • IT Service Management (ITSM);
  • project management;
  • public affairs management; and
  • strategic management.

These areas of specialised professional practice are not heterogeneous and easily separable. Most owe something to common fundamental principles, and they overlap in method and intent. So, for example, business process management includes consideration of an architectural framework, and enterprise architecture includes business process management as a level of decomposition, meaning the breakdown of processes into more detailed examinations. To avoid duplication in analysis, only those aspects of the professional specialisations regarded as most relevant are examined under their own headings.

Because this analysis can only proceed from known details, and it is likely that far more complex but publicly undisclosed factors influenced the events and outcomes of the census project, the analysis focuses on high-level strategic and management issues rather than delving into granular technicalities.

While there is a strong focus on aspects of strategic planning and its translation into operational implementation, broader issues relating to political influences in the administration of democracy emerge, and are tied back to some contradictions between economic and professional rhetorics when compared to actual practices.

The intention is not to offer political solutions so much as to point to the potential for better professional practices, though better management practices in government and the public sector would make for better political outcomes.



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