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ANZSOG Case Library: How the Australian Bureau of Statistics bounced back from #censusfail

25 April 2022

News and media


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After more than a century of unobtrusive and consistent excellence, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found itself in an unfamiliar spotlight in 2016 when its website was struck down by a suspected cyberattack on Census Night.

A new teaching case in ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library looks at what was a ‘crucible moment’ for the ABS and how it dealt with a deluge of negative coverage and commentary as it worked to salvage the census and restore its reputation. It follows the story of the ABS as it was required to venture into new territory and run a plebiscite on same-sex marriage in 2017, as well as its preparation and execution of a more successful Census in 2021.

Co-written by former Australian Statistician David Kalisch, the head of the ABS at the time, and featuring interviews with senior ABS staff including Census Program leader Duncan Young the Case gives an in-depth look at how the ABS took an unflinching look at the factors that contributed to #censusfail and was able to rebuild its reputation.

This includes looking into the background of #censusfail, going beyond technical difficulties to the long-term underinvestment in the ABS’s capability, and issues with leadership and strategy. It provides a vivid example of an organisation plunged into a sudden crisis on two fronts – operational and reputational – at the worst possible time.

It outlines how the ABS built the same-sex marriage plebiscite from scratch, its consultations with the community, risk management and communications strategies, and use of expertise from other agencies.

An epilogue to the case focuses on changes made in the wake of Census 2016 to guard against a repeat disaster and other potential threats. Readers will gain an insight into managing a highly challenging situation, as well as the less public but equally vital process of rebuilding capability and trust.

After all the angst of #censusfail and patient rebuilding, Census Night 2021 unfolded without incident, as a record number of forms were collected and processed.

Duncan Young says that, while he would not recommend the experience, #censusfail had the silver lining of forging a tight-knit team, and driving home key lessons for all public sector leaders.

“Some of the key lessons I think that we took from the census was a real understanding of the paramount importance of public trust,’ says Young.

“Public trust is really the fuel that feeds into our kind of public programs. Also the real focus on partnerships and the fact that, in today’s complex world we’re all better when we’re working together.”

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