How the Census demonstrated it takes an entire organisation to be digitally-aligned

By Brett Fairbank

Thursday August 11, 2016

The Australian Bureau of Statistics brought back the eCensus again for 2016, (having originally launched it as opt-in from 2006), bringing the counting process that began in Australia in 1788 well and truly to the digital era. But in doing so, it had to allay concerns surrounding privacy, security and digital capability.

The 2016 Census woes were never entirely an IT issue

Yes, the IT infrastructure load-balancing, cyber-security and continuity strategy could have been better planned.  The ABS had forecast capacity for 1 million concurrent users which based on a back-of-the-envelope forecast does not appear sufficient to cope with the load.  If you are expecting roughly 30% of the 10 million households will still complete the paper form, this suggests 7 million households will log-on to the web site on a single day, many completing it during a peak-period (in the evening after work / dinner), condensing the majority your 7 million target users to complete the survey during a 3-4 hour window, suggesting the capacity may require 1.8 million to 2.3 million concurrent users.  Expecting the traffic-load to be distributed evenly over a day is unrealistic, particularly in 2016 when everything is ‘on-demand’, from Uber-like transportation, to reality-TV shows promoting second-screen audience interaction.

Indeed, Canada had the same problem only a few of months ago, with the web site grinding to a halt at 7.00pm as too many concurrent users began completing the form in the evening.

A classic example of marketing not moving with the times

When seeking a population to complete a paper form, it may seem logical to run an above the line campaign encouraging everyone to complete the census on a particular night.  Indeed, what the Australian Government has been doing since 1966 – the first time television was mainstream during a census period.

1966 Australian Census Advertisement: “On the 30th of June Census Day is here!”

1986 Australian Census Advertisement: “On June 30th, get behind the Census”

2016 Australian Census Advertisement: “It’s August 9, so get online – tonight is Census night”

However, with the introduction of eCensus in 2006, the ABS began to change the core call-to-action it was asking of Australians.  When a business transitions its core processes, the entire organisation must align with the change.  In the Bureau’s case, the marketing strategy remained unchanged, asking the population to complete the form on a single night.  Yes, that’s important for statistical reasons, but the information can be completed at any point during the collection period, with respect to a household on the census date.

A lesson on organisational alignment

The ABS should now review its communication approach and align with the data collection service it is offering. eCensus provides citizens 24×7 access to complete the web form on a range of devices during the 6 week collection period.  Running the same marketing and communication strategy for a paper-based process – now for a digital platform – isn’t just lazy, it invites trouble. Any IT advisor will warn of the operational risks associated with deliberately planning mass-usage of IT infrastructure.

It’s easy to throw stones at innovation and risk-taking when it fails.  Doing something for the first time is never easy and we continuously learn on how to make improvements each time a new iteration is released. Unfortunately it’s a blow for the government trying to instil confidence in citizens that it can protect their privacy and data from a cyber attacks.  But it also now presents an additional hurdle for the Australian Electoral Commission to overcome if eVoting is to be introduced for the next federal election.  Will we see voting for the next federal election take place over a week instead of a single day?

By Brett Fairbank, senior manager at The Experience Centre, PwC Digital Services

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

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