In defence of trial and error: the public sector innovation we all deserve


The instinct behind the 2016 Census was right. After this week’s milestone of 95% of households successfully competing the survey, Australia should look to embracing trial and error like other governments.

The first census is said to have been conducted by the Babylonians in the second millennia BCE. Using clay tablets and cuneiform script, a complex list was kept of those who were able to undertake military service.

Other than a move to papyrus, and later to paper, the process continued unchanged through to the modern day.

That is until this year when the Australian Census attempted to innovate what is a complex and logistically difficult process by moving much of the process to the internet. The result has left Census 2016 as a cautionary tale in the public sector.

While the execution was poor, the instinct was right.

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  • Dan,

    Census 2016 was well past the innovation stage for an electronic Census, with the ABS first offering the option in 2006 and again in 2011.

    There were a lot of learnings from those first two outings, which were shared, but not well internalised by the ABS. Very few of the learnings fed into the latest effort, partially due to timeframes and partially due to systemic challenges which limit the government’s capability to learn from mistakes.

    Being the third outing for an eCensus in Australia, with both the ABS and IBM involved for a third time, the takeaway isn’t related to innovation, it’s related to a failure to learn from past events a failure to adequately design and test a digital system attracting significantly less traffic than most major commercial sites and a failure to plan the risks or to engage based on good crisis communications principles.

    Innovation involves a significantly higher bar than upscaling and tweaking a system that’s already been used twice before in a decade – there’s plenty of good example of innovation in government, but, sorry, the 2016 Census is not one of them.