The Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey: lessons in risk and collaboration


CASE STUDY: Australia says ‘Yes’ — the first-of-its-kind implementation of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics is one of the finalists in this year’s Public Sector Innovation Awards.

Fresh from delivering the nation’s first online-by-default census, the ABS was instructed by the Turnbull government to ditch online for a technology from an earlier era for its next high-profile survey. Could it take the lessons of its digitally-savvy capabilities and apply them to post?

ABS’s Duncan Young updates us on the challenges of rolling out the unfamiliar under a cautious (and even hostile) public gaze.


Last year’s historic Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey posed a significant challenge for the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

It was a high-risk exercise, with only 99 days to design, develop and deliver the national survey, including processing and publishing the results.

It was carried out in a high-profile and emotionally-charged environment, with starkly divided political and public opinion, and passionate campaigning on all sides.

Furthermore, a non-compulsory and potentially non-binding national postal survey was unfamiliar to the public – and to a large extent, to the ABS.

ABS Program Manager for the survey, Duncan Young said the ABS adjusted many of its long-standing practices to meet this challenge and to successfully deliver.

“With debate raging and emotion flooding all communities across Australia, we held a neutral position and focused on developing the best possible plans and processes to achieve high levels of voluntary participation,” he said.

“We are now using new approaches based on lessons from the survey across areas such as user-centred design, behavioural economics, collaboration and community engagement, and risk and issues management.

“We are continuing to apply these approaches across our business.

“This will ensure we not only modernise, but stay relevant in a constantly changing and increasingly challenging environment.”

The ABS is also sharing these lessons across the Australian Public Service and internationally, where they have valuable application for other service delivery and regulatory agencies, and statistical organisations.

Collaboration and engagement

The success of the Marriage Law Postal Survey relied on most people on the electoral roll deciding to participate voluntarily. To achieve this, the ABS actively engaged the community and communicated with the Australian people at all stages of the survey.

Young said the ABS worked with numerous government agencies, communities and their representatives, the private sector, interest groups, not-for-profits, and the public to co-design and deliver a survey that was easy and accessible. Engagement started on day one and provided a genuine opportunity for the survey design and strategies to be shaped through community input.

“This was an unprecedented level of engagement and collaboration for the ABS,” he said.

“This collaboration and engagement made sure that all Australians eligible to participate had their say, and access to support if required. On top of that, it helped prevent and mitigate issues and risks across all aspects of the survey.

“Co-design improved our strategies, and allowed us to forge partnerships with community groups and representatives so we could quickly and directly escalate any issues. This minimalised the risk of poor service delivery, negative media coverage, and loss of trust in the process and results.”

Risk management

The ABS also learned some critical lessons in the area of risk management during the survey.

Young said risk management often involves documenting and validating existing approaches. Risk management activities often describe risk, but do little to address the actual risk.

“Our priority was to not just understand risks well, but to place constant emphasis on how to reduce or eliminate them,” Young said.

The ABS adopted a structured approach to risk and issues management that encompassed:

  • risk identification, assessment and risk treatment plans through an embedded Risk Specialist
  • risk management central to program leadership and governance
  • a comprehensive assurance strategy founded on the application of ‘Integrity Gates’ at critical survey stages
  • development of an issues management framework and triage process for managing issues, supported by issues management and recovery plans.

“Our dedicated Risk Specialist was embedded within the survey taskforce, and worked closely with each taskforce team,” Young said.

“Using fairly traditional methods, we identified risks, and recorded, categorised and rated them on a risk register. This was a living document with around 50 risks on it at any time.

“The officer was encouraged to take a ‘black hat’ view of the risks to ensure that risks were not prematurely dismissed or downgraded. Risk ratings were regularly reviewed, retired and berthed.

“The taskforce set clear thresholds for risk acceptance. Any risks with high residual exposure ratings were referred to the Deputy Statistician to explicitly accept, whereas risks at a medium level were considered and accepted by the taskforce manager.

“Taskforce executive and the ABS’ most senior management used the register multiple times a week to guide decisions, and prioritise work to mitigate or reduce the impacts of risks,” Young said.

Taskforce Leader Jonathan Palmer and team at one of the daily stand ups.

The risk register also highlighted areas of risk out of the ABS’ control or with consequences beyond the ABS.

In these cases, risk owners worked closely with external partners or key stakeholders to understand and develop more detailed risk mitigations, invest further in risk reduction, and clearly communicate risks that could affect them, our assessment of exposure and our planned actions.

“For example, to help mitigate the risks associated with potential privacy concerns, the ABS increased the transparency of its approach, and engaged external experts who could add credible, independent views in any public discussion about the survey,” Young said.

“We engaged former Australian Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton to review and challenge the privacy design of the Survey and to make a public statement on this design.

“Crompton’s strong statement on our privacy-by-design approach and controls helped ensure there were no broad privacy concerns or significant media coverage on this issue.”

The ABS also worked closely with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure compliance with better practice for privacy protection.

Issues management

While the risk identification and mitigation work helped limit issues, Young said that the Census experience showed the need for a proactive issues management.

“Public trust in the ABS and the survey was the most important aspect for success,” he said.

“We understood that issues were inevitable in a project of this size and nature. We also understood that our handling of issues would really impact levels of trust.”

The ABS diagnosed a cultural preference to focus and invest in preventing issues at the exclusion of planning for how to respond to and resolve issues that have occurred. To address this bias, the ABS also created a dedicated team to ensure appropriate focus on issues management.

This team used the risk register and worked systematically across taskforce teams, and with senior executives, to identify areas requiring issues management and recovery plans, prepare for these, and develop the following supporting processes and infrastructure:

  • issues management room, equipped with communication, and collaboration technology
  • issues management support staff, people on stand-by to keep a record of the issue and provide administrative support
  • artefacts such as an issues assessment matrix detailing all dimensions to be considered for each issue), issues handling process, key contacts, and issues management run sheets for each issue.

Key taskforce personnel who would be involved in incident or issues management also took part in an issues simulation exercise to test issues preparation and highlight areas for improvement.

The success of the issue management approach is clearly demonstrated through the ABS’ arrangements to issue replacement forms and invalidate barcodes for forms that had potentially been stolen or sent to an incorrect address.

“Damaged envelopes were found at Mona Vale during the survey,” Young said.

“This was a major incident that could have created public concerns around privacy, and the integrity of the Survey and the ABS’ reputation. We were able to quickly address the issue.”

The survey taskforce took all the damaged Mona Vale mail into its possession and sought contact with each affected participant, to issue new forms while invalidating old ones.

“Similarly, one Saturday afternoon, we became aware that a barcode containing an inappropriate word had been issued to a member of the public. We overlooked that in the two quintillion barcodes generated, rude or offensive terms could randomly form the barcode,” Young said.

“We responded and resolved the issue in less than 40 minutes. We investigated and confirmed the code was real, apologised for any offence caused and offered to reissue new forms and codes. The matter was not taken any further, received limited media coverage and ultimately did not impact survey operations or success.”

The future

Young said the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey was a major challenge that the ABS met with confidence, innovation and support from other agencies.

“For us, this survey was about applying our experience and lessons learned to deliver real outcomes,” Young said.

“Any agency undertaking high-risk and high-pressure projects must find a way to make risk and issues management work effectively in the moment, and look outside of itself to get results.

“The pride in the outcome achieved is shared by everyone in the ABS and its partners.

“The ABS will take the success of the Marriage Law Postal Survey, other lessons learnt over recent years, and the challenges of our internal transformation to continue our journey of improvement.

“We will continue to focus on engaging with the community and specific groups to ensure interaction with the ABS is as easy as possible, and taking a best practice and continual improvement approach to managing risks and issues.

“This will ensure government, stakeholders and the public get the information they need, delivered with professionalism, integrity and high levels of public support and trust.”

Top photo: Australian Statistician David Kalisch announces the result of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey

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