ABS considers cancelling 2016 census amid IT system woes

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has indicated that it is considering cancelling the 2016 census, while calling for more investment to replace the agency's ageing IT infrastructure.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) wants to invest in "critical infrastructure" to support its census work, but move to conducting the census once every 10 years.

On Thursday, Fairfax Media reported that the bureau has asked the government to remove the requirement that it conduct the census every five years, and instead move to a census once every 10 years.

It was reported that the agency would instead use the funds placed aside for the 2016 census to overhaul its legacy IT systems.

The ABS would not confirm whether the census funding would go towards replacing legacy IT in the event that the proposal is approved by the government. However, Australian Statistician David Kalisch said the agency needs to make a "major investment in infrastructure" in order to be able to deliver the timely information it is tasked with providing.

"The ABS is committed to the census. However, the census in its current form only provides a snapshot of Australia on one day every five years, and it takes some time for key information to be released after census night," he said in a statement.

"The ABS has been considering options for transforming our people statistics for some time, with the aim of producing data on the economic and social conditions of Australians more frequently and in a more timely manner. The ABS sees significant value in better and more frequent data."

He said recommendations had been made to the government on how to produce better information, and what investments need to be made to achieve this.

"Government investment in the ABS' critical statistical infrastructure would enable the ABS to better manage quality risks and make better statistical use of information available to governments and the community. This will position us to better deliver the information that Australia needs now and into the future," he said.

"We welcome government decisions on these matters in due course."

The agency already has some funding for IT set aside: In August last year, the ABS allocated AU$58.9 million in the agency's budget for technology services over the next 12 months, in a time when the agency is being forced to reduce its expenditure by AU$50 million over the next three years as part of budget cuts from the federal government.

Australia's former chief statistician Brian Pink warned in the ABS annual report in 2013 that ageing infrastructure and reduced budgets from the government have the potential to "seriously compromise" the agency's sustainability.

ABS CIO Patrick White told ZDNet in early 2014 that the agency's ABS 2017 program would remove the risk posed by legacy business processes and infrastructure.

"Whenever you embark on major organisational transformation, you really take on two transformational projects. One is how you're seeking to transform the business and the other is how you transform the teams such as IT to build the capacity to deliver that transformation," Hadley said.

"We're looking at a business transformation program whereby we're looking at coping with the range of challenges for new and improved statistical products and outputs, better data quality, faster, less cost, all that kind of thing."