Preparations of the 2016 census
The 2016 census was held in August, but planning had begun five years
earlier in 2011 when the ABS agreed to a set of strategic priorities:
maximise the count of every dwelling and person in Australia;
maximise the value of the census to all users;
protect the privacy of the public; and
increase the efficiency and sustainability of the census.
Early planning for the 2016 census
Preparation for the 2016 census commenced in June 2011 with the
establishment of the 2016 census team within the ABS. In July 2012, the ABS
held discussions with the Australian Government (government) on the census
business case. This culminated in funding being allocated in the May 2013
budget for the census.
This provided the required funding for the next four years to
develop and conduct a transformed national Census. The ABS considers that it
had adequate funding to conduct a high quality Census in 2016 and sufficient
time to properly prepare for the Census.
In May 2015, the government budget included investment in the
Statistical Business Transformation Project and affirmation of the 2016 online
Budget problems and suspended preparations
The 2013-14 Australian Government Budget allocated the necessary funding
to develop and conduct a transformed national census which the ABS reported was
'adequate funding to conduct a high quality Census'.
In February 2015, there were reports in the media that the ABS had
considered cancelling the 2016 census and moving to decadal censuses. The
Australian Statistician confirmed later that month that the ABS was
considering changing how the census was run, but that as the government was
still considering that proposal, he was not in a position to comment outside of
noting: 'We have provided some proposals to government around changes to the
frequency of the census'.
IBM's submission to the inquiry informed the committee:
In or about February 2015, the ABS informed IBM that it was
considering not proceeding with the 2016 eCensus (or, indeed, any Census in
2016). IBM understands that the ABS was considering decreasing the frequency of
the Census to once every 10 years and running a rolling Australian Population
Survey (APS) during the intercensal period.
In May 2015, the ABS informed IBM that the existing 5 yearly
Census frequency would be maintained and the 2016 eCensus would proceed, with
Census Day to be 9 August 2016 as originally planned.
The ABS' lengthy and otherwise comprehensive submission to this inquiry
makes no mention of these events.
Census preparations were further complicated by the departure of
Australian Statistician Brian Pink in January 2014, with his permanent
replacement, Mr David Kalisch, appointed almost a year later in
The period of September 2013 through to August 2016 also saw four
different ministers (the Hon Steven Ciobo MP, the Hon Alex Hawke MP, the
Hon Kelly O’Dwyer MP and the Hon Michael McCormack MP) take
responsibility for the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The titles for the responsible minister also changed during this time,
and included “Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer”, “Assistant Minister to
the Treasurer”, “Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer” and “Minister for
Scope of questions
The number of topics included in the census has steadily increased over
time. The first census had 19 topics; the majority of which have remained part
of every census since. Topics are removed from the census when there is no
longer sufficient justification for their inclusion. Blindness/deaf-mutism, for
instance, was last collected in 1933.
Since 2006 there have been no changes to the 61 included topics.
The ABS sought public submissions on both the nature and content of the
2016 census from November 2012 to May 2013.
This consultation formed part of the ABS' attempt to optimise the 2016 census
to ensure that the data collected through the census was of a high quality and
relevant in contemporary Australia.
The ABS' submission summarised the results of this consultation:
Over 1000 submissions
were received. In these submissions, 54 new topics were suggested and all 61 of
the topics in the 2011 Census received strong support for retention. The ABS
had more than 80 meetings with key external stakeholders including Australian
Government departments, state/territory departments, statistical advisory
groups and selected interest groups.
The ABS reported that there is significant demand for additional topics
to be included in the census, but these demands are balanced against economic
and methodological considerations:
There is significant
demand for additional topics, such as information on long term health
conditions. The inclusion of any new topic needs to consider the significant
cost, the burden on households, the limitations of the size of the paper form,
and the continuing need for other existing topics.
The committee heard concerns that 'there is a general perception that
the questions on the census form are out of date and some are becoming
irrelevant in the modern era. There is also a need for new questions to be
Some suggested topics for inclusion included questions about health status,
disability, use of recreation time, modes of travel to education and other
activities, pet ownership and part-time family arrangements.
In contrast, the Institute of Public Affairs noted that much of the
information that is included in the census is more efficiently collected
elsewhere, and concluded that:
If the Census is to
continue into the future, its scope and scale should be heavily scrutinised,
and the questions it asks should be restricted only to those questions which
can be demonstrated to be absolutely necessary.
In August 2015, the ABS published the 'Census of Population &
Housing: Nature and Content, Australia, 2016' which revealed that the same
topics would be used in the 2016 census as were used in the 2006 and 2011
The move to an eCensus
The 2016 census was designed to be primarily conducted online, in what
the ABS described as 'digital first', which 'aims to provide a more effective,
more efficient, more environmentally-friendly census that was intended to be
easier for people to complete'.
It was predicted that the digital-first approach would deliver savings
of $100 million in the running of the 2016 census compared to the 2011
One of the largest costs associated with running the census is the temporary
employment and training of thousands of field officers used to deliver and
collect census information. The use of an eCensus would reduce the number of
temporary workers required.
For households, the online census promised to reduce the time required to
complete the census from a benchmark of 37 minutes for paper forms in 2011 to
26 minutes for the new eCensus.
Although the 2016 census was not the first census to have an online
option for submitting, it would be the first whereby the ABS actively
encouraged households to use the online option.
It was reported to the committee that in 2012 the ABS began
investigating the possibility of a primarily online census. As outlined in
internal ABS procurement documents prepared in 2015:
In 2012 the ABS
initiated a project aimed at the consolidation of eForms solutions across the
ABS in order to deliver a single streamlined, flexible and cost effective
outcome for the ABS. An internal assessment of the ABS capabilities and an
approach to market via a Request for Expressions of Interest in 2012
established that current ABS solutions were on a par with anything that the
market place were offering and as a result it was recommended that the ABS
focus on progressing its implementation of existing eForms solution, Blaise.
The ABS goes on to report that this in-house solution was later
determined to be unable to scale sufficiently to meet the needs of the census:
effort to progress the advancement and implementation of Blaise, it has become
clear that Blaise will be unable to scale to the requirements of the Census in
2016. With less than twelve months until the eForm needs to be deployed for the
2015 Census Dress Rehearsal, which requires the use of the 2016 Census eForm,
the ABS must utilise the existing ABS Online Census solution.
A later report from an external consultant was more straightforward in
explaining this fact and the consequences of it:
Whilst Blaise is the
strategic choice for e-collection it has taken a significant period of time to
demonstrate that this is not a suitable solution for Census. This has diverted
resources and wasted time in the Census Program, an impact that is still seen
in the delayed schedule today.
Following consideration of existing options, the ABS determined that its
existing software system was not appropriate for use in the census, and in 2014,
the ABS' Steering Committee responsible for the census program took the
decision that Blaise was not a viable solution.
The ABS engaged the firm Capability Driven Acquisition (CapDA)
to conduct an independent review of the ABS' ICT capabilities for the 2016
census, and provide advice on the capacity and availability of commercial
CapDA produced the Census 2016: ICT Capacity & Capability (ICT
Census) report and provided it to the ABS in May 2014. The ICT Census report
agreed with the ABS' assessment that Blaise was unable to scale to meet the
demands of the census, and recommended:
...[The] Review Team
recommend that [the] ABS positively consider placing the bulk, if not all, the
responsibility for development and operation of the eCensus and associated web
facing components with the prime partner.
The ICT Census report, having examined the internal capacity of the ABS,
articulated the case for the use of an outsourced solution saying:
[The] ABS will never
have the resources, nor would it be likely to prove cost effective, to develop
and sustain the skills/capability and capacity to run eCensus 'in-house' every
five-years, as it is counter to the [business as usual] nature of the ABS.
The ICT Census report highlighted that the best value for money would be
achieved through an open tender process—as is typical for government
procurement processes—but that this option may not be viable in this
circumstance due to time constraints.
Because of this consideration, the ICT Census report recommended a limited
also be given therefore, to a limited tender to reutilise the existing eCensus
application. This would potentially involve procuring IBM's services given
their existing experience of the application, hosting it and working with the
ABS on the eCensus. This route although not ideal from a procurement
perspective, would have the benefit of mitigating the increasing risks to what
is a far more complicated Census Program than has ever previously been
attempted and in what is a much reduced timeframe for a [partner] to come 'on
board' than in earlier Census cycles.
The ICT Census report also noted that the use of a limited tender to IBM
would be appropriate 'in consideration of the limited time frame and the
inherent risks in working with any new organisation'. The relationship between
the ABS and IBM is discussed in greater detail in chapter 6.
Limited tender to IBM
IBM had previously worked with the ABS in 2006 and 2011 to provide
online census systems. IBM reported to the committee that:
IBM was engaged by the
ABS to provide IT services in relation to the 2006 eCensus and 2011 eCensus.
IBM developed the electronic form and the online hosting environment (known as
a 'platform' or 'system'). The solutions provided by IBM were successful, and
saw the percentage of respondents who completed the electronic form rather than
the paper form (the 'online response rate') increase from approximately 9 [per
cent] in 2006 to 33 [per cent] in 2011.
IBM reports that during both the 2006 and 2011 censuses, it delivered 100 per cent
availability throughout the busiest periods.
As part of a separate contract, IBM provided the ABS an information technology
solution to convert paper forms completed by households into an electronic
In September 2014—following a limited tender process as recommended by
the CapDA report—the ABS contracted IBM to develop, deliver, implement and host
the online census system.
The procurement documents noted that a limited tender would still ensure a
satisfactory value for money outcome as:
experience the ABS has a detailed understanding of the costs to develop and
support this system [eCensus], and thus will be able to use these benchmarks to
measure whether value for money is being achieved. IBM are conscious that the
ABS has this knowledge and that it will need to provide a value for money price
if it is to win the tender. The total cost will be reduced through removing the
cost of a full market tender process.
Under the terms of the contract between ABS and IBM, all intellectual
property rights for the eCensus application are assigned to the ABS.
The committee was informed that IBM is not required to pay a royalty fee to the
ABS to use the intellectual property developed during the census project.
The ABS argued that this arrangement would benefit Australia as the
intellectual property could be advanced through further development work
undertaken in other countries:
...we were keen to see the system further developed at other
people's expense. My understanding is that we included in the contract a
provision for IBM to leverage the intellectual property in the hope that the
software would be further enhanced through other applications.
Procurement documents show that the ABS were confident that IBM represented
value for money and had the capability to deliver the 2016 census.
Development of eCensus
The 2016 census built on the solutions provided by IBM in 2006 and 2011,
with the aim of increasing the online response rate to 65 per cent, or around
10 million households.
The ABS later requested that IBM increase the eCensus hosting infrastructure
capacity to support an online response rate of 80 per cent. The contract between IBM
and the ABS for the design, development and implementation of the eCensus was
priced at $9,606,725.00.
The agreed solution saw census data protected using encryption on
dedicated infrastructure hosted in Australia, and cloud services used for
non-sensitive parts of the system (static help pages, for example). IBM did not
have access to the data provided by households. Data was only able to be
decrypted by the ABS who possessed the unique decryption keys.
The contract required that the eCensus site be available to the public
to access, complete and submit census forms for a minimum of 98 per cent of the
61 day period from 9:00am on 26 July 2016 to midnight on 25 September 2016, as
well as for 98 per cent of the four hour peak period from 7:00pm to
11:00pm on 9 August 2016.
Revolution IT was contracted to perform load testing on the eCensus
The key performance requirement of the eCensus was expressed in the number of
forms that could be submitted per second. Load testing is the process of
simulating human interaction with the application to ensure that the
application can support the expected demand.
The ABS expected a maximum required capacity of 250 forms per second, or
approximately 900 000 per hour.
Submissions to this inquiry questioned whether the ABS had
underestimated the load that would be placed on the eCensus system. Dr Robert
Merkel, a software testing specialist, informed that the committee that website
traffic peaks are often far higher than average levels. Even a short service
disruption could have precipitated the overload of the eCensus due to its unique
In many cases, when a
website is overloaded and inaccessible, people will seek alternative sources
for the information or service they attempted to access, or try again after a
substantial period. In the case of the e-Census website, this would not have
been the case—most people would have repeatedly tried to access the site,
either for initial access, or to complete the submission of their Census form.
As such, unmet demand would have built up like water behind a dam.
It was also pointed out to the committee that it is very difficult to
simulate how humans are going to interact with software:
Creating a 'real'
load to test effectively with is challenging. It can be very expensive to
generate sessions which fully replicate a 'real' load situation. Often loads
generated for testing are not sufficiently 'real' to fully load the webservers.
The ABS retained the services to UXC Saltbush to undertake a code review
and penetration testing. Penetration testing looks for security weaknesses that
an attacker might exploit. IBM reports that 'no issues of significance emerged
in the course of either testing program'.
Conducting the census
A key cost of delivering censuses in the past was the large number of
temporary staff that needed to be employed to deliver and collect census forms
from every household in Australia. One of the key motivators of moving to an
eCensus solution was the unsustainability of this model:
approach to the 2011 and previous Censuses was reliant on increasing the number
of field staff in order to deliver and collect forms or online access codes
from every dwelling. Recruiting a sufficient number of staff required for the
short-term field operation has become more difficult; and staff costs have
escalated. In 2011, there were a number of areas where sufficient field staff
could not be recruited and the ABS needed to fly in higher paid ongoing
employees. In addition, with decreasing numbers of people in each household and
an increased proportion of the population that is in the workforce, Census
collectors have had decreasing success in contacting people at their homes.
Some dwelling types such as secure apartment buildings are particularly
problematic for hand delivery and collection of materials.
The 2016 census changed the way census materials were to be delivered to
the public and returned to the ABS. It was explained to the committee that:
Australia Post’s mail service was used to deliver and return
required materials from the majority of households. The majority of households
responded online. Households are able to request a paper form through an
automated phone service if they preferred or needed to respond by paper.
In some areas of Australia, where the postal service was
likely to be unsuitable or insufficient address information was known, Census
Field Officers delivered materials to each dwelling, enabling residents to
either complete their form online or mail back a paper form. In other areas
where a high proportion of residents were expected to need to complete the
Census form on paper, all households were delivered paper forms in addition to
login numbers (e.g. in areas where there is a higher proportion of older
The majority of households received a login code via the post that enabled
them to log in to the eCensus website during the collection period. The
remainder of households were posted or hand-delivered a paper census form to be
completed, and later collected by Census Field Officers.
Communication of move to eCensus
It was reported by the ABS that 'a communication campaign designed to
drive participation is a key component of every Census'. The committee heard that
awareness raising is necessary because of the relatively long period between
Censuses, as well as new arrivals to Australia not being familiar with the
process. In addition, there were significant process changes to communicate
because of eCensus. The changes to the 2016 census were to be communicated to
the public through a variety of vectors:
The 2016 Census national
campaign comprised integrated paid advertising, media and public relations,
social media and online communication, stakeholder communication, special
audience advertising and communication, and the development and distribution of
The committee heard that the census was advertised across television,
radio, print, digital and social media; additional advertising was also adapted
and translated for Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse
The committee heard some concerns regarding the advertising undertaken
by the ABS.
Vision Australia reported that some public advertising material was
inaccessible to the blind and low vision community. Interlime observed that
'the advertising campaign was not very effective in engaging with Australians
or explaining the importance of the Census'.
It was also argued that the ABS did not adequately explain the changes in how
the 2016 census was to be completed.
Research conducted before the census showed that in July 2016, 78 per
cent of people were aware of the census. Further research conducted between 17
August and 4 September showed that 96 per cent of respondents were aware of the
census. Less than one per cent of people who were aware of the census indicated
that they did not intend to complete it.
The Census Inquiry Services (CIS) is established each census to provide
telephone and email based support to the public throughout the census period.
The 2016 census saw the introduction of the Paper Request Form Services (PRFS)
to automatically process requests for paper census forms. The ABS signed a
Memorandum of Understanding with the Australian Taxation Office to provide call
centre operations for the 2016 census.
Emphasis on 9 August
Households are able to complete the Census over a number of months. The
Census does not have to be completed on any specific date, but the answers
should provide information related to the reference date. In 2016, this date
was 9 August.
For example, if a household completed their form on 2 September, they should
answer the questions as they would have had they completed the form on 9
The 2016 census advertising campaign followed a similar format as
previous Censuses with a strong emphasis on the reference night. The ABS
explained that this this approach was taken in order to:
keep the message simple;
mobilise people around an 'event'; and
ensure that census forms are completed in respect of census
The committee heard concerns that the tight focus on the reference date
left many Australians with the incorrect impression that they must complete the
census on 9 August.
IBM, for instance, argued that one of the consequences of the ABS focusing
heavily on 9 August in information advertising was that many people may
have formed the view that the census had to be completed on 9 August. The eCensus
website was in fact open for a total of 61 days, during which time Australians
were able to complete the census online. ID Consulting was also critical of the
way the ABS communicated with the public regarding how to complete their census
There was poor
communication from the ABS on the date for completion. The online site was
always planned to be online from July 25 to September 23, to allow people
a large window to complete the form, and give the last few an option to still
complete online while being followed up by field officers. But this was widely
publicised as “You have until September 23 to complete it”, so people were
confused as to why they were being followed up before that date. ABS needs to
be clearer that August 9th is the reference date and it needs to be
completed as close to the date as possible.
The events of 9 August are discussed in detail in chapter 6 of this
report, including the performance of the website and telephone services, as
well as the conduct of census field officers.
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