Could a different communications message have made a difference?

Some days working in communications in government can be tough. Yesterday was definitely one of those days.

After a tetchy few weeks in the run up to the Census, the first I was aware of the communications drama unfolding at the ABS was a series of tweets yesterday morning describing graphically how a number of senior bureaucrats and pollies were responding to what had clearly been a major systems failure on the Census website.

The various conversations seemed to be lurching all over the place. Was it an attack or not? Was data lost? Whose fault was it? The various spokespeople seemed to have differing views about the key message. As the drama unfolded, someone published the costs of the project on social media, creating another mini firestorm

Meanwhile, the communications message was getting more and more garbled. We were given some insight about denial of service attacks (“like a truck parked across your driveway” apparently) and that such an attack was “always likely” and we heard language that included phrases like “an attempt to frustrate data collection” and that the problem was a “malicious attack” and a “false positive”.

As we all became experts in hacking (or whatever this was), we learned that the system has been tested to be capable of handling a million submissions per hour. Some of us privately wondered whether that would be enough to cope with the early evening rush as people got home from work and settled down to fill in the online forms.

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