Census funding uncertainty meant ABS was underprepared: Union

Relentless cuts to the ABS and an uncertain funding future spelt doom for the Australian 2016 Census, the Community and Public Sector Union has said.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The ever-looming spectre of budget cuts and controlling costs has driven many of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) decisions, particularly with regard to the Census, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has said.

In a submission [PDF] to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics which is conducting an inquiry into the 2016 Census debacle, the union said financial pressures and the need for savings affected work on the Census.

"Members report the ABS only received half of the money they needed for the ICT transformation programme," the CPSU said. "Budgetary and workload pressures were a factor behind some of the ABS' decisions about keeping data such as keeping it for a longer period of time."

But it was funding uncertainty that put the Census behind the eight-ball, as time was lost while deciding whether to conduct the survey or not.

"The decision to try to save money by trying to cancel the Census in 2016 stopped planning for six months at a critical juncture," the union quoted one member as saying. "It was then too late to ensure systems would be ready."

One member of the CPSU said as far back as Febraury 2014 that the progress on the Census was disjointed due to IT funding uncertainties, while another said systems testing was six months behind schedule and that its systems were less than ideal because there was not enough time to build them properly.

"With all the delays, we had to descope and ... we were unable to run our dress rehearsal (an end to end test of systems and processes) in 2015," a member said. "Instead, we only ran tests on a couple of targeted systems and processes."

The union also pointed to members stating the ABS is "drastically underskilled" in modern web-based IT, that the agency should have consulted better on retaining name data for longer, and that workers were being overworked.

The union said 83 percent of its members said there had been IT issues.

"My team can't get responses out of our IT section regarding services they should be able to provide," one CPSU member said. "I think they are just run off their feet."

"The IT problems at ABS are cripping," another member said. "We experience constant and ongoing technical problems with all our systems, both those externally and internally facing."

"In the support of existing systems, we're told that we are not allowed to fix anything that is not an emergency and/or prioiritised as critical. (At the same time we're told we should be innovating!)" one member is quoted as saying.

The CPSU said ABS staff are doing their best under trying circumstances, but they've hit the limit with reduced resources, and called on the government to restore funding to avoid future problems.

The August 9 Census was pulled offline by the ABS after it experienced a series of denial-of-service attacks, suffered a hardware router failure, and baulked at a false positive report of data being exfiltrated.

"Data collected up to that time was secure and the integrity was not compromised," Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Alastair MacGibbon said in a submission [PDF] to the inquiry.

MacGibbon is due to hand down his own report into what went wrong on Census night.

In the aftermath of the Census decable, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was angry that the site fell to an "entirely predictable" denial-of-service attack, and that heads would roll.

Last month, the CPSU took aim at the government for dilly-dallying in appointing a chief statistician, changing ministers thrice, and cutting staff members.

"It's shameful that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said 'heads will roll' at the ABS over the Census while taking no responsibility for the real cause of this debacle: The decisions made by his government," the union said at the time.

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