Laura Tingle: mandarins between a rock and a hard place

By The Mandarin

August 12, 2016

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Census bungle is part of the wider problem of diminished capacity and confidence in the Commonwealth public service, argues columnist Laura Tingle in today’s edition of the Australian Financial Review.

It’s unclear who’s to blame for the Census debacle, she thinks — the Prime Minister, the new minister three weeks into the job, the politicians previously in charge, Kelly O’Dwyer and Alex Hawke, the parliamentary secretary before that, Steve Ciobo, the ABS itself or the private firm charged with delivering it, IBM:

“But it is worth noting that the ABS has been the subject of a long-term degradation in its capacity under both sides of politics. A sign of the neglect – even contempt – in which the bureau seemed to be held by the Abbott government was that the job of chief statistician was left empty for almost a year until it was filled by David Kalisch in December 2014.

“It has lost hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget in recent years and hundreds of people over the best part of a decade. In January 2014 it sought a $300 million bailout, arguing that its financial position left it “with barely enough cash to keep the lights on”.”

“Long before this census controversy blew up, there were multiple public warnings about its 40-year-old IT systems. Old IT systems don’t just mean clunky processing, they tend to mean you aren’t likely to have much cutting-edge IT expertise on site.

“It is clear that the bureau saw the whole idea of going online with the census as one which would generate big cost savings.”

Tingle explored the phenomenon of the APS having become less capable in a Quarterly Essay last year.

Read Tingle’s full column on the Census here.

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