Flat White

There’s a silver lining to the census SNAFU

11 August 2016

1:08 PM

11 August 2016

1:08 PM

There’s no question that Census 2016 is an omnishambles of the first order that, as Simon Cowan succinctly sums up in his related Flat White post, joins the Government Administration Stuff-Ups Hall of Fame.


As an exercise in smooth, competent, government the Census has been a debacle.  Not just the unprecedented name retention and cyber-attacks (and causing a huge online exercise to fall over is a successful attack, whatever the hapless responsible minister, Michael McCormack, may say), but the whole shambolic process. This was an avoidable disaster years in the making.  Why, for instance, was the first online Census not backed by a detailed risk assessment and contingency plan, anticipating not only cyber-attacks but simple systems overload problems?

Part of why there has been so much tinfoil-head hysteria about an online Census, data security and protecting privacy is that we knew so little about what was going on until just before it was sprung on us.

Public and media concerns about privacy and proposed data-matching and sharing were so blindingly obvious that ABS and government bigwigs should have been ready for them.  A desultory awareness campaign a week or two before Census night, for something so new and to which people’s worries were responded to by threats of prosecution and fines rather than answers, is not creating awareness and winning hearts and minds. The build-up to the Census should have started months ago, running through the election period as non-partisan education campaign.

Despite the Prime Minister’s talk on Thursday of heads rolling, blaming the ABS, and questioning the quality of expert advice and systems design, he and the responsible ministers should accept overall responsibility for the mess on their watch. Harry Truman’s famous sign, “The Buck Stops Here”, should be superglued to the desk of the PM and every minister. If ministerial supervision was lax or complacent, and took the ABS and its Census preparations for granted, it reflects poorly on those ministers and the PM: any inquiry they call into this farce should ask searching questions of ministers and parliamentary secretaries as well as bureaucrats and consultants.

Politically, the fallout is entrenching the voting public’s impressions of an endemically SNAFU government. Since the tax and GST reform debate went pear-shaped for the Prime Minister and Treasurer earlier this year, including an election campaign that was ill-judged and poorly executed, Mr. Turnbull and his government have hardly taken a trick. If they can’t rid themselves of their SNAFU reputation by year’s end, the Coalition probably will be doomed to lose the next election whenever it may be, and whoever may be leading it. The only winner will be Bill Shorten.

But it’s not all bad.  The Census farce shines an overdue light on government’s insatiable appetite for hoovering up information from the deepest corners of our lives.  Bureaucrats and the researchers who live for survey data want all the information they can get their hands on, not simply for the claimed primary Census purposes of identifying needs, potential demand and priorities for public services and programmes. They’re no evil Big Brothers, but erring on the side of too much information, not less is in their bean-counter DNA.

Big Government thrives on Big Information. So if this week’s omnishambles sparks a vigorous debate into how to blind the prying eyes of government, safeguarding such of our personal information we do provide, and simply questioning what we as individuals legitimately should be asked to share with our fellow citizens and what must remain private, that can only be a good thing for our liberal democracy.

It’s a debate that should – must – be had, but for heaven’s sake let’s keep data-hungry bureaucrats and politicians out of it.

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