The political economy of our census fiasco

The root cause for the dramatic failure of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) first online census is bipartisan Australian economic vandalism. What I mean is the pursuit by the major parties of economic policies that work to the detriment of the nation by serving foreign interests.

How that explains the cascade of technical failures which shut down the ABS census website requires taking a more strategic view of the fiasco than that offered by technology commentators.


From my perspective this begins sometime in the 1990s, when the ABS began to trim its offering of data collected and interpreted. A trend that continues to this day. A trend that has noticeably restricted the information necessary to make evidence-based policy decisions, but most especially, to offer evidence-based evaluations of whose interests are actually served by the economic policy pursued by both major political groupings in Australia.

I suspect this detrimental outcome is less the result of a deliberate conspiracy than the same kind of national vandalism that occurs when taxpayer funds no longer fund public-benefit infrastructure because the money is diverted towards subsidy of corporate interests.

The Guardian’s Greg Jericho write a thoughtful column on how economic vandalism has affected the ABS for some time, and what that means about the quality of its products – the statistical data it collects, interprets, and disseminates.

He stopped short of linking the budget cuts he rightly identified as the cause of many of the ABS’s troubles to the political cause. The mantra of slashing public spending as fiscally responsible budgetary measures is a lie. What is being slashed is public spending on the public. Public spending continues unabated on programmes and ‘initiatives’ which create rents and subsidise the largest commercial interests: mostly transnational corporations whose aims and ambitions are corrosive of democracy, nation states, and national populations.

I don’t see that as a good thing. But that’s a political question, and a separate, much more complex debate. For what it’s worth, I favour the views of Yanis Varoufakis on many of the associated issues.

I do assert, in the present context, that while economic vandalism of Australia as a nation state continues as policy, and while this vandalism manifests in continuous budget cuts to agencies like the ABS, the census night debacle is an outcome that should have been expected by any competent professional, and certainly by corporate and public leaders.

As for the Prime Minister’s suggestion that heads should roll for the failure of the online census infrastructure, there may be some merit to looking for retributive punishment. But that punishment should start with his own Treasurer, Finance Minister, and the hapless nobody he made responsible for the ABS pretty late in the game.

Looking downstream a little from this longitudinal strategic vantage, there are also some signal consequences of orthodox political economy in evidence here.

Let me declare that I regard orthodox political economy in Australia to be a policy vassalage to interests most vigorously pursued by the USA, but loyally supported also by the UK, Germany, and Japan. It is an orthodoxy based on the discredited idea of trickle-down economics: that cutting taxes for the rich means they will spend on economic activity that will benefit everyone. I say discredited because I believe the evidence shows that since the 1990s investment in productive capacity has been wound back in favour of hoarding cash mountains, tax avoidance, and the generation of contrived profits based on economic rents and the financialisation of assets already written off.

As an example, consider Australia’s biggest telecommunications carrier, Telstra. It has been granted a monopoly to extract money for nothing – economic rent – from an aged and already fully depreciated network of copper wire. That network was paid for by Australian taxpayers decades ago, and is in bad shape because investment in its maintenance has sunk to an all-time low. Yet Telstra is able to charge both a rental fee for access to the infrastructure, and another fee for the services transmitted through that infrastructure, while not being legislatively required to guarantee any quality of service, and simply booking the income to profits distributed as dividends and executive bonuses.

Telstra is not alone in being granted economic rent in this fashion. Every public asset bought and paid for by taxpayers that falls within the ambit of the doctrine of privatisation provides a similar source of money for nothing under the regime of privatisation. Sometimes the same outcomes accrue to ‘outsourcing’. There is no evidence that private interests have ever run anything more efficiently than public service organisations; all they have ever done is strip the assets and raised prices for lower quality services in direct relationship to what has been permissible at law (and sometimes well beyond the legal limits). The outcome is always that the public ends up paying several times over for infrastructure it owned outright to begin with, and then for the new infrastructure made necessary when private ownership of the original stock has allowed it to collapse completely.

That this is unsustainable national vandalism is readily apparent if anyone examines the state of national infrastructure, like roads, railways, public schools, libraries, and so on, in the home of this politically economic ideology – the USA.

What has all this to do with the census fiasco?

By pursuing the American doctrine on political economy, successive Australian governments have ensured that the Australian public service had neither the money, nor the expertise on which the money could have been spent, to properly plan and execute an online census strategy. Moreover, the ABS did exactly what the doctrine has been advocating since the Reagan era: outsourcing its core functions to private operators. In this case, IBM, Revolution IT (for load testing), and Telstra.

As a case study in how outsourcing inevitably lowers quality of service while saving no money at all, the choice of IBM to deliver the technology is priceless (almost literally). The failure of IBM’s solution casts doubt about the veracity of the data derived from the entire 2016 census exercise, meaning the $10 million spent on the online technology is essentially a write-off which also invalidates several hundreds of millions of dollars more spent on other census costs.

IBM is a typical example of transnational corporations, who are the major benefactors of political economy based on alienating public ownership and handing it to the biggest private interests. And it is an exemplar of the consultancy model used by large consultancy firms, particularly in information services. That latter reality is really my focus in this part of my analysis: a consultancy model based on using impressive talent for the pitch, outsourced sweatshop labour for the work, and a few dunderhead graduates to turn up at the client site for show after the deal is sealed.

A first question that ought to be asked is how and why IBM was chosen in the first place. Is there a single procurement or risk manager in the country who has not heard of the Queensland Health payroll system, and the central rôle IBM played in this billion dollar rolling catastrophe? How is it possible that any public body in Australia would do business with IBM after that shameful episode?

But my intent in this context is more professional: I am interested in what happened to architecture and project management for the online census technology.

IBM is one of the champions of the Open Group, best known as self-appointed international standard bearer for enterprise architecture standards (TOGAF). I assume that IBM was responsible for project architecture, given the ABS’s inability to fund its own statistical services, let alone high level IT expertise.

The foundation of TOGAF’s enterprise architecture religion is matching capabilities with value streams and service-oriented process architectures. Where and why, in that exercise, did IBM’s architect come to the conclusion that the online census was not mission critical, and therefore did not require fully redundant systems from end to end? By fully redundant I don’t mean just building a copy of what I assume was IBM’s preferred build of AIX/WebSphere Java applications, but a duplicate using an entirely different technology stack, including also a secondary ISP (as fallback in case of the predictable Telstra routing failure).

I am tempted to suspect that IBM used a solutions architect (a competent technician promoted to a strategic rôle beyond his or her capcity), entirely focused on technology, rather than a genuine enterprise architect, capable of understanding strategic issues and visualising technology solely as services (and not limited to proprietary IBM technology). But I have no evidence for that suspicion beyond the obvious architectural failure.

I’m also assuming IBM provided the project manager(s). Was there no risk assessment at this level to identify the massive exposure of a single system in a pioneering project for collecting data of a nature that made the whole project a highly attractive target for every intelligence agency and gangster cartel in the world?

I don’t think these are unreasonable questions. These problems were anticipated by many commentators with far fewer credentials in enterprise architecture or project management than IBM can lay claim to.

Is there any evidence that both the architectural redundancy option and the risk assessment were in fact forwarded to the client and accepted? If so, IBM is in the clear on this. If not, I think there’s a case to be made that IBM acted unethically by either recklessly ignoring risk management altogether, or by acting egregiously to hide the risk from its client. If this latter circumstance applies, IBM’s defence for it is caveat emptor, but the Commonwealth response ought to be to blacklist the corporation when it comes to consideration of awarding future contracts for all Commonwealth agencies.

It is hard to imagine either the Coalition or Labor making such a decision. It is even harder to imagine that Telstra’s small but pivotal rôle would attract similar censure.

Yet I find it difficult to imagine how a half-way competent risk manager (or an experienced project manager) could not have foreseen the Telstra routing failure in a project planning period regularly punctuated by Telstra outages, equipment failures, and apparent technical incompetence. Probably all due to withholding productive investment in order to boost dividends, bonus payments, and share price. In any case, the evidence for taking note was all over the national media, and should not have required too much effort to turn into a high risk factor on even a modest risk register.

Given the warning signs about both IBM and Telstra, I am now left wondering whether there was ever any plan to use sub-corporate local talent, and perhaps even open source software solutions, if only for a redundant system running in parallel with a more orthodox build.

Looking at the ABS unemployment figures, I am pretty sure there’s a surfeit of unemployed and underemployed IT talent in Australia, making it unnecessary to hire a foreign corporation likely to offshore significant work, or not to do that work at all.

But that brings us back to the beginning: Australia’s continuing service to transnational corporate interests, enshrined in policy supported by both major political groupings, has stripped away the expertise and capacity of the public sector to competently manage a globally leading edge IT implementation, run by local talent, and focused on the national and public interest outcomes.

In these terms the ABS was doomed to fail with the online census several years before it was ever conceived. If it was guilty of anything at all, it was lying to the public about the lawful basis for making it mandatory to provide names and addresses, and to argue the security of that information from theft or misuse from a basis of technical incompetence and the certainty about progressive bipartisan encroachment on citizen privacy. I see these lies emanating from political interference in the bureau’s independence, but highly damaging nonetheless to its reputation, and to the credibility of the data it supplies.

Likewise, the arrogant, overbearing response of the ABS to public concerns about privacy were disastrous forays into political manipulation it should have eschewed. The ABS does not have the expertise to conduct political public affairs campaigns, and almost certainly made itself an even bigger target than it was already for hackers by acting in such a crude fashion.

Nevertheless, if the Prime Minister is really serious about looking for, and punishing culprits for the census failure, he probably needs to look a lot closer to home than his ABS staff. Perhaps a glance in his own shaving mirror would be a good start.

Some backround material

Stephanie Anderson and Francis Keany, ‘Census: Angry PM Malcolm Turnbull warns ABS of consequences over website “failure”’, ABC.

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

Rohan Pearce, ‘“Confluence of events” led to Census failure’, Computerworld.

Chris Duckett, ‘Australian government pins Census collapse on geoblocking failure and overloaded router’, ZDNet.

Paul Karp, ‘Census 2016: outage due to “overcautious” response, not hacking, government says’, The Guardian.

Allie Coyne, ‘Turnbull blames IBM for Census “failure”’, IT News.

Greg Jericho, ‘Lesson of #CensusFail: continued funding cuts mean agencies can’t do their job’, The Guardian.

Alicia Barry, ‘ABS staff say data undermined by funding cuts, lack of leadership’, ABC.

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

Patrick Gray, Riskybusiness.


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