William vs the Census

This Sydney Morning Herald article pretty much explains it:

“Private citizen crowdfunds to pay for FOI into census failure after being slapped with an exorbitant fee by ABS”

Frustrated with my reasonable request for information being stonewalled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), I raised the $1000+ they demanded to get it. That led to 15 minutes of fame in August 2016.

Further media coverage followed when I finally got the information back, which revealed general chaos behind the ABS communications on Census night [The highlight being the email at 10pm saying: “Can’t express the extreme urgency around this now. Prime Minister’s Office is now involved.”]

The full 234(!) page response can be downloaded from the ABS website (PDF document) if you want to spend a few hours reading repetitive and mostly tedious email exchanges between ABS staff.

A quicker and more interesting route is to instead read the summary reports from ABC, Sydney Morning Herald or Mumbrella.

My take on the chaos, for what it’s worth, is below:

  • Regular ABS staff seemed to keep calm and probably did a decent job under the highly stressful and unhappy circumstances, pushing out a badly miscalculated message about everything being okay for far too long.
  • Senior managers should have realised that the massive credibility gap between what they were saying on Twitter and what people were experiencing was not sustainable. They set themselves up to look silly when it all crashed down.
  • A more agile response would have perhaps been to admit there were some issues and send the message that people didn’t need to complete it on 9 August if they couldn’t do so. That would have saved us all a lot of time and frustration.

As a final point, I would like to make very clear that I have high regard for national statistics and data (I previously worked for the Royal Statistical Society and currently work in the research sector). My intention in exposing this information is nothing to do with undermining the ABS or official statistics, and nor am I making any political point about the Census. It is just because I really dislike public bodies intentionally misleading people and then trying to cover it up when they get busted.

The Government belongs to the people, not the other way around.


Disclaimer: This article has been added retrospectively (i.e. the story happened before this blog was born). I’m publishing it here now to put all the information and links together somewhere for future reference. Hence I’m dating it as October 2016, which is when it all came to a head, but this article was actually published 14/03/17. 

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