Census fail didn’t happen by accident

melissa_donnelly_300pxFunding cuts have consequences and the census was a slow-motion train wreck. 

Good governance and public services don’t happen by accident; they require long-term investment, writes CPSU Deputy Secretary Melissa Donnelly.

 

ARBITRARY funding cuts have consequences. The 2016 census was a slow-motion train crash.

In the weeks before what’s previously been a mundanely uncontroversial exercise, community goodwill was tested by concerns about how the census would be conducted, privacy and digital security.

The government and the Australian Bureau of Statistics seemed unprepared to deal with these concerns and struggled to contain them.

For a few hours on census night itself, it looked like that controversy would be left behind. That was, of course, until the website was pulled down and social media exploded with complaints.

While we all now look for villains – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promised quickly that “heads would roll” – the reality of what led to this debacle is a simpler, more boring truth.

Good governance and good public services don’t happen by accident – they require long-term investment and commitment. While there have been many failings along the way, the failure to invest in and fund the ABS sowed the seeds for what happened on Tuesday, August 9.

Why the census matters

Every five years, the census provides us with the opportunity to get a detailed picture of the lives of Australians.

This allows governments and policymakers to make informed decisions about designing and implementing policy. At a time we want evidence-based policy, the census is absolutely critical. For example:

  • Health policy: who needs what services, where.
  • Housing needs, now and into the future.
  • Future needs for schools and universities.

And the data isn’t only available to governments and policymakers. Businesses and entrepreneurs also access census data freely – helping them design and build their businesses to match needs in the community. While “innovation” and “agility” have become buzzwords, the census is one of those things that governments can do well to foster innovation and agility and support business.

How did it go so wrong?

It’s fairly clear this was a disaster waiting to happen, but it’s by no means the only one. The Community and Public Sector Union has warned the government for years that arbitrary cuts have consequences.

The ABS, like other Commonwealth agencies, has copped years of budget cuts. The so-called “efficiency dividend”, which arbitrarily reduces agency budgets each year by a percentage amount, has hit the bureau hard. For several years, governments increased the dividend as a way of dealing with budget shortfalls, pushing the hard decisions of resourcing and cuts onto agencies. The last budget was no different: the Turnbull government again slugged agencies with a 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend.

Since 2010, the ABS has had to contend with budget cuts in the order of almost $100 million as a result of this and other measures. Dealing with these cuts is particularly difficult for an agency with statutory responsibilities that it must discharge – it isn’t easy for the bureau to simply cut a program.

The ABS has also shed staff. The census is obviously a significant undertaking for the bureau, and budget papers reveal that, in 2011-12, the last time the census was conducted, the ABS had 700 more staff than it does today.

On top of all of this, the government failed to appoint a new Australian statistician for 11 months after Brian Pink departed – leaving the ABS without a permanent chief for most of 2014.

This history of cuts give an idea of the position the ABS was in before this census: an agency under pressure and desperate to save money wherever it could.

And so the ABS tried to run the census on the smell of an oily rag.

In fact, Australian statistician David Kalisch boasted at Senate estimates that the census, which usually costs about $450 million, would be $100 million cheaper this year because it would conducted primarily online. Now, instead of saving $100 million, it must be asked whether the ABS has the resources to pay for the extra call-centre hours and the processing of more paper forms than expected.

More important than that financial price, though, has been the costly damage to the ABS’s reputation and the lost opportunities from a discredited and distrusted 2016 census. It’s critical that the bureau has the funds to restore its reputation and rebuild community trust without delay.

It’s everyone else’s fault

It seems apparent there have been errors by ABS senior management: poor calls, rushed processes.

Questions must also be asked about the role of IBM as the main technology provider, underlining the fundamental problem of where accountability lies when public services are outsourced.

But the Prime Minister’s finger-pointing has overlooked the obvious fact that, at the end of the day, the buck must stop with his government.

It was the government that cut the bureau’s funding and hence staff. And it was government that failed to invest in public sector agencies such as the ABS, thinking there would be no consequences.

Melissa Donnelly is a deputy secretary at the Community and Public Sector Union. This article was originally published in the Canberra Times.

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