Census 2016 Case Study Part 7

Conclusions | References

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 introductionConclusions

Armchair critique of complex circumstances and individual performance risks being smug and unrealistic, yet it is the nature of public offices that they attract attention, and its occupants become the target of criticism.

In that regard, the present government cannot avoid being the target of critique: from a professional perspective for misunderstanding and failing to lead technological change and innovation; from an interested citizen perspective for visibly seeking to blame the ABS and IBM for its own shortcomings; and from an interested shareholder perspective for either being incompetent, or pursuing a deliberate strategy of destroying a public asset, possibly to justify outsourcing its functions with no clear public benefit.

If there is indeed an agenda to outsource the functions of the ABS, this would be rightly regarded as a threat to Australian democracy, with the control of information that determines the mechanisms for representation apparently offered to private interests. Even in the absence of such an agenda, the government of the day cannot deny that it delayed the appointment of a Chief Statistician (CEO of the ABS) for almost a year during the online census project planning and implementation phase. It can also not avoid questions about why there was no responsible minister between the July 2016 election and two weeks prior to the 9 August 2016 census, when the bureau faced significant public backlash for a decision to retain name and address details.

If blame is justified, the ABS itself must accept the lion’s share. From a professional perspective, based solely on known facts relating to the online census project, it is inescapable to conclude that there was so little evidence of contemporary management practices that a complete management vacuum has to be suspected.

It would be valid to question whether a management failure can be traced back to antiquated staffing and promotion practices, in which competent specialists are placed in management positions they are ill equipped to carry out. It is still a relatively common mistake to assume that a technical specialist, like a statistician, or a programmer, has the personal and professional attributes to become a capable leader of statisticians or programmers, let alone a competent strategic manager.

Some question must also exist about the choice of IBM as principal contractor so close in time to its spectacular failure in the Queensland Health payroll project, which was well enough publicised to be known without substantial research. If procurement was supervised by the Finance Department, as is suggested by its responsibility for a whole-of-government IT strategy, public scrutiny is warranted into evaluation processes and their independence from political or other considerations. One of the main questions might be why no local firm could be found to offer IT services. That question gains weight by the ‘Make Census Great Again’ hackathon mentioned in the section on background, referencing undergraduate students who delivered a proof of concept for an online census system over one weekend at the cost of only $500.

Precise details of IBM’s performance are largely hidden by contractual confidentiality. However, as one of the world’s oldest and largest IT corporations, there appears to be little excuse for failing in almost every objective of the contract with the ABS, beginning with the project architecture; IBM is a ‘Platinum’ member of the Open Group, which is the self-appointed standards body for enterprise architecture. The only way to explain IBM’s failure to deliver a fit for purpose solution is a breathtakingly transparent disregard for outcomes rather than maximum extraction of taxpayer dollars for as little effort as possible.

The apparent misconfiguration of system components, and confusion about the meaning of data created by IBM montoring systems suggests that while IBM may have pitched its services using senior professionals, the execution of the project was left to under-skilled juniors.

This mode of maximising consultancy profit should by now be well enough known to be addressed in contractual risk mitigation. The government of the day, now and in future, should carefully consider what signals it sends to professionals in condoning questionable professional practices, and in presenting government as an easy target for highly paid but mediocre work. Equally, professionals not working for corporate giants might ask themselves why a home grown solution was not actively pursued in favour of paying a foreign corporation.

Taken together, the performance of the government, the ABS, and IBM represent a perspective on how the public is ill served by an antiquated political and public management paradigm which ignores the enormous changes in public and social expectations and capabilities for exerting influence.

In short, the public witnessed mediocre leadership and professional performances all around, and is unlikely to be mollified by rhetorical excuses and inaction to address the evident failures. Indeed, the only way to explain the failures as anything other than staggering incompetence across the private and public sector is to suggest it was managed deliberately to produce the outcomes that arose, and have yet to arise.

On a more positive note, if there was no deliberate attempt to fail, performance was so bad that improvements should be relatively easy to plan for and implement. All that is necessary is the will to aim for something better.

Census 2016 case study introductionReferences

The case study pages on this site were originally aan InDesign publication. Inline numbered references were removed from the publication as unsightly and not reader-friendly, but these corresponding references are presented to evidence the veracity of description of the events surrounding the online census project. Duplicate references indicate that a single source is used to reference two or more separate details. Depending on demand for it, I may re-link the refrences to the relevant parts of this online version of the case study at some future time.

ABS, 2016, ‘ABS Legislative Framework’, http://www.abs.gov.

ABS, 2016b, ‘ABS Privacy Policy’.

Commonwealth Parliament of Australia, 2015, ‘Census and Statistics (Census) Regulation 2015’.

ABS, 2015, ‘ABS Corporate Plan 2015-19’.

ABS, 2011, ‘2011 Census Fact Sheet’.

Greg Jericho, 11 August 2016, ‘Lesson of #CensusFail: continued funding cuts mean agencies can’t do their job’, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/business/grogonomics/2016/aug/11/lesson-of-censusfail-continued-funding-cuts-mean-agencies-cant-do-their-job.

Peter Martin, 13 August 2016, ‘Code Red: How the Bureau of Statistics bungled the 2016 census’, Sydney Morning Herald.

Oliver Milman, 19 February 2015, ‘Census in 2016 in doubt as 10-year data collection considered’, The Guardian.

Trevor Long, 9 August 2016, ‘Census 2016: the $10 million online census – what went wrong?’, EFTM.

Emily Burke, 16 August 2016, ‘Census website fail will have “profound” impact on Australian technology sectors, IT analysts say’, ABC

Paul Osborne, 11 August 2016, ‘ABS knocked back extra cyber protection’, AAP.

Sabra Lane, 3 August 2016, ‘David Kalisch, ABS chief statistician, discusses the Census’, ABC 7.30.

ABS, 15 December 2015, ‘ABS response to Privacy Impact Assessment’.

ABS, 11 March 2016, ‘ABS responds to incorrect assertions in AFR story about Census’.

Noel Towell, 20 May 2016, ‘I don’t trust ABS with my personal data: ex-ABS staffer’, Canberra Times.

Peter Martin, 20 July 2016, ‘The Bureau of Statistics endangers the census by asking for names’, Sydney Morning Herald.

David Kalisch, 21 July 2016, ‘Give us your name on census night, it’ll be safe’, Sydney Morning Herald.

Stephanie Anderson, 4 August 2016, ‘Census 2016: Malcolm Turnbull says privacy “absolute” in ABS survey’, ABC.

Lucy Cormack, 3 August 2016, ‘Australia’s top statistician David Kalisch says ABS is “ready” for census 2016’, Sydney Morning Herald.

Peter Martin, Fergus Hunter, 9 August 2016, ‘Minister says Census “no worse than Facebook” as Nick Xenophon risks jail’, Sydney Morning Herald.

Francis Keany, Alkira Reinfrank, 9 August 2016, ‘Census 2016: Senators could be prosecuted over withholding details, ABS says’, ABC.

Sabra Lane, 3 August 2016, ‘David Kalisch, ABS chief statistician, discusses the Census’, ABC 7.30.

Stephanie Anderson, 4 August 2016, ‘Census 2016: Malcolm Turnbull says privacy “absolute” in ABS survey’, ABC.

ABC, 10 August 2016, ‘Census: How the Government says the website meltdown unfolded’, ABC.

Patrick Gray, 11 August 2016, ‘What I’ve been told about #censusfail’.

Tom Iggulden, 10 August 2016, ‘What was behind the census debacle?’, ABC.

Gareth Hutchens, 11 August 2016, ‘Bureau of Statistics says census debacle is over – but site still patchy’, The Guardian.

Helen Davidson, 10 August 2016, ‘Census 2016: ABS says deliberate attacks were to blame for website crashing’, The Guardian.

Patrick Gray, 15 August 2016, ‘Censusfail and the fog of war’.

Allie Coyne, 16 August 2016, ‘Experts cast doubt on ABS’ Census DoS claims’, itnews.

Primrose Riordan, 11 August 2016, ‘Malcolm Turnbull warns “heads will roll” over census “failure”’, Australian Financial Review.

Michelle Grattan, 11 August 2016, ‘Angry Turnbull flags heads will roll over census disaster’, The Conversation.

Anna Henderson, Stephanie Anderson, Francis Keany, 12 August 2016, ‘Census: Survey back online as angry Malcolm Turnbull warns “heads will roll”’, ABC.

Jacob Greber, 12 August 2016, ‘Former ABS chief says buck stops with chief statistician’, Australian Financial Review.

Henry Belot, 24 August 2016, ‘Politicians must be blamed for census failings, former PM&C secretary Terry Moran says’, Sydney Morning Herald.

Austin Wilshire, Bernd Hartzer, Dom Hutton, Tylor Stewart, 14 August 2016, ‘CodeNetwork: Make Census Great Again’.

Trevor Long, 2016, ‘How two uni students built a better census site in just 54 hours for $500’, EFTM.

Australian Government Department of Finance, ‘Whole-of-Government ICT policies’.

The Open Group, 2016, ‘Members of the Open Group’.

Sam Varghese, 10 August 2016, ‘Census 2016: why ABS head Kalisch should walk the plank’, IT Wire.

For details on situational leadership see also https://situational.com/the-cls-difference/situational-leadership-what-we-do/ and http://www.kenblanchard.com/Products-Services/Leadership-Fundamentals/Situational-Leadership-II



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