Monday, 26 September 2016 09:45

Union claims ABS 'in chaos' well before census

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While the 123-page submission by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to the parliamentary panel that is inquiring into the failure of the census is primarily concerned with shifting the blame to IBM for the debacle, an eight-page submission by a union paints an organisation in chaos well before census night.

The Community and Public Sector Union's submission paints a picture of an organisation that was in a state of disarray, with fears over finances leading to dissatisfaction among the workforce who were over-burdened as a result of staff cuts.

The census was held on 9 August and intended to be largely an online affair. But the website could not cope with the demand and as a result was taken offline by the ABS which claims that a distributed denial of service forced its hand.

A total of 38 submissions have been received by the parliamentary panel which is due to report back on 24 November. The ABS submission is mysteriously missing from the list.

In the CPSU submission, union deputy secretary Melissa Donnelly wrote that as early as February 2015, ABS officials were concerned that they would not be able to deliver the 2016 census on the scope, timetable and budget envisaged due to both budget cuts and programme delays.

In early 2015, both the government and the ABS had tossed up the idea of abandoning the census, in order to fund an update of the aging ICT systems and processes. The plan was to replace the census with a large population survey once every 10 years.

Critical planning time was lost while this idea was considered. Donnelly listed responses from members about this, with one saying: "The decision to try to save money by trying to cancel the census in 2016 stopped planning for six months at a critical juncture. It was then restarted too late to ensure systems would be ready."

And another member told Donnelly: "While a decision was eventually made to provide funding for a 2016 census, the time lost could not be recovered. Some preparation did continue during this period of uncertainty, however, it was at nowhere near the level required. The end result was that systems testing were still more than six months behind and decisions to prioritise key issues had to be made. A lot of the systems being used are a long way short of ideal simply because we did not have enough time to build them properly."

However, a public outcry led to the retention of the census but it received reduced funding and union members said only half the money needed for the update of systems and processes was received.

While the 2011 census cost $440 million, the 2016 count was expected to cost $100 million less due to the expectation that 65% of the forms would be filled online.

Some members indicated to Donnelly that the ABS appeared ill-prepared to cope with any problems that might arise during the actual running of the census.

One said: "I was alarmed by how ill-prepared ABS was for the major incident. It seemed like the approach to risk managing was to risk assess the hell out of it - 'yep, it could go pear shaped - but there did not seem to be any preparation/contingencies to go with it. There was a lot of scrambling to put together a response."

And the same member added: "My work area is an area that had a role to play, post incident - we had nothing and had not been required to prepare anything or 'practise' any kind of responsiveness ahead of the main event. We spent a few days scrambling to pull something together."

Donnelly wrote: "It is clear that the continual budget cuts to the ABS and indecision and delays caused by the government were significant contributions to the problems experienced in the 2016 census."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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