Griffiths / Census cock-up: are we surprised?

“A $270 million census process gave a piddly $9.7 million to IBM to run the online process that was supposed to take 65 per cent of the forms,” bemoans Lowbrow columnist JOHN GRIFFITHS.

“Do… or do not. There is no try.” – Master Yoda

GIVEN the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ historic oppression of Australia’s Jedi community, going so far as to threaten fines for followers of the path who dare to express their beliefs in the census, there was some irony in that organisation’s miserable failure to fulfill its core duties last week.

John Griffiths.

John Griffiths.

Serious-looking men in very good suits have appeared before cameras and told a whole series of half-truths and obfuscations.

Many of those men have even tried to pretend a major failure has not occurred. But the Prime Minister wasn’t willing to go along with the farce so it’s safe now to call it out for what it was.

It’s a sad time for the country, for Canberra and for the public service.

We used to be a commonwealth that had serious, competent bureaucrats, capable of conducting things such as a census with at least the appearance of professionalism.

It might have been expensive, but there was a lot to be said for handing out forms and collecting them all back in. There’s a lot of redundancy and resilience in the old-fashioned way of doing things. The best part is that even if a part of the system fails, if someone loses their form, if a census collector has a flat car battery or a family emergency, the failure occurs on a small scale and can be rectified.

But when you’ve set up your census as a huge series of online forms and the server can’t handle the load of the whole country sitting down after dinner on a Tuesday night to do their duty to the nation, then there’s nowhere to run or hide. There is only failure.

In hindsight it’s amazing that anyone thought this was going to work well.

A $270 million census process gave a piddly $9.7 million to IBM to run the online process that was supposed to take 65 per cent of the forms.

While I accept that collecting the census from a drover’s dog out the back of Boggabri is going to be more expensive than fetching them in Ainslie, it still seems more than passing strange that less than five per cent of the money went on 65 per cent of the census.

However, there is some good that can come out of this national humiliation.

The first is this should be a national wake-up call that endless cuts to the public service will, eventually, destroy the government’s ability to performs the tasks it sets itself.

The second is a timely reminder that just because reassuring people in expensive suits from major corporations can blather convincingly in a sales meeting doesn’t mean they can, or will, deliver their promises.

More importantly there is another area of public life where there’s a push on for a snazzy technical solution to replace good old pencil and paper.

That area is in the electoral system.

We might, in a close election, have to wait a few days for a result. The not knowing might cause Malcolm Turnbull a sleepless night on his silk sheets in his pink Point Piper mansion.

But the system as we have it now is resistant to failure and tampering.

If the census debacle spares us handing our electoral process to the lowest-bidding IT multinational for a generation it will have served no small public good.

 

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