#CensusFail? But why?

Posted: August 16, 2016 in Ranting
Tags: , , , ,

Malcolm Turnbull has fired up, insisting that there will be a review into the debacle that has been Census 2016, threatening that heads will roll. But will the review look at everything that needs to examined and will the right heads be sent to the executioner’s block?

The current outcry which has lead Turnbull to making his angry declaration about a review, revolves around the havoc that was the intended electronic lodgement on Census night, August 9. However the issues surrounding that website failure are only part of the overall equation which is need of closer analysis and remedial action.

Once the last Australian Statistician, Brian Pink, came to the end of his term in January 2014, the Abbott government allowed the position to remain vacant for the best part of a year. Defying the trend of recent Statisticians coming from within the ABS fold of experienced statisticians, David Kalisch was brought in from outside. The delay in that appointment raises the question, was the Abbott government waiting until a suitably pliant individual could found? Or worse, was Kalisch another infamous and disastrous Abbott ‘captain’s pick?’ Either case could help explain some of the stunts being pulled.

The Census of Population and Housing is a big undertaking every five years. And like everything else in the public sector, it, along with the rest of the ABS suite of activity, it has been subjected to ongoing funding cuts. This highlights a fundamental flaw in the continuing efficiency dividend approach to making the public sector more ‘efficient.’ It eventually reaches the point that there simply isn’t enough money to do the required work. If you need to buy something costing $2, but only have $1.75 in your pocket, then no amount of ‘efficiency’ is going to turn that $1.75 into two bucks.

The question has to be asked, how heavily has funding for Census and the ABS generally been cut? Alarm bells started sounding when the ABS flagged the possibility of moving the Census from five-yearly to ten-yearly cycles as a means of saving significant funding. It is extremely hard to believe that the ABS would propose anything like that unless there was a need to make such significant savings. So there is a big question that needs to be asked – have governments brought on this Census crisis by continued unreasonable funding cuts, leaving the ABS simply unable to conduct Census as it needs to be conducted, thus compromising the entire process?

A significant justification for the move to electronic lodgement of Census forms was the anticipated major savings over continuing to conduct it as a paper-based collection. But again, would the ABS have even gone down that route unless funding had been cut to the point of making the traditional style Census, the conduct of which the ABS definitely know how to manage, had to be significantly changed?

ABS has been running the Census for a long time now with a clearly defined five-year cycle. However there is a rumour that government interfered in this Census, holding up decisions on what the ABS was to do and how it was to do it. And, according to that rumour, those delays forced the ABS to have to do things on the rush, which could well have contributed to the apparent problems that have resulted. So the next question that needs to be reviewed is just what role did government, including the relevant Ministers, have in interrupting the usual Census timeline?

Where the ABS under Kalisch has really failed has been in the area of communications. It was November 2015 when the ABS announced its intention to retain name and address data from the Census for use in other statistical activities. Come mid-December the ABS announced that it was indeed going ahead with those intentions, defending them with an internal assessment of impact on privacy issues.

Essential to the conduct of Census is having an Australian population onside who shall cooperate and largely provide meaningful and accurate information. However if that trust is compromised, then the lack of public trust increases the likelihood that members of the public shall not fully cooperate. That is referred to as participation risk. And that ABS assessment was that the participation risk associated with retention of name and address data was Very Low. So how did the ABS come to that conclusion?

The public consultation period was between late-November and mid-December 2015. And according to the ABS’s own documentation on their website, during that period they only received three public responses, all of which were negative. That lack of feedback was used to justify the Very Low assessment of participation risk. But here is where things fall apart. How many people even knew that this was going on? The same ABS documentation notes that the entire media coverage at that time was a total of two articles, neither of which were in the mainstream media. Are we expected to believe a ludicrous position that none of the mainstream media had any interest in the subject?

There is only one viable explanation – the ABS put documentation on its website and made next to no effort to ensure the wider Australian population were aware of its intentions. It was left to the rest of us to find it for ourselves. It was only from about March 2016 that we saw mainstream media focussing on the issue. Key privacy institutions who had been consulted on previous ABS ideas for Census, were now reporting that they had no idea of these changes as they had not been consulted this time around.

If nobody knew what the ABS was intending, then how could the ABS then justify that participation risk assessment of Very Low or the nonsensical proposition that it had ‘widely consulted’ as insisted by Kalisch and Duncan Young, Program Manager of the Census? It could be argued that this process has a stink of being conducted in order to ensure a low response rate in support of a predetermined outcome.

Hardly anyone knew about what was being proposed. To claim otherwise could be seen by some as a blatant lie. And this is probably the most important question to be addressed by any review – did the ABS properly consult? Why weren’t key privacy institutions consulted? What steps did the ABS take to get the message out to the wider Australian population? Why has the Australian Statistician insisted on blatant lies on the subject of consultation? And how much did relevant Ministers know about this? Was Kalisch doing what he was told or had he gone rogue?

Former Australian Statistician, Bill McLennan, authored a paper, Privacy and the 2016 Census, in which he questions the fundamental legality of ABS compulsorily acquiring name and address data for the suggested wider statistical activity. Yet Kalisch insists he has advice from the Solicitor-General which contradicts McLennan’s analysis. But Kalisch refuses to divulge any details of that advice from the Solicitor-General. The next question therefore needs to be, what advice was provided by the Solicitor-General and did that fully address the issue of retention and wider use of personal identifiers? And why has the Australian Statistician been permitted to keep it a national secret?

Malcolm Turnbull is spot on – questions need to be answered heads need to roll. But as is typical of such things, I expect the right questions shall not be asked nor will the right heads be going under the guillotine.

Ross sig

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