We need govt to take more risk, fail fast and learn with new technologies #CensusFailFast

Census 2016 was by any measure an enormous failure. Best laid plans ruined and the expectations of an ambitious Australian Bureau of Statistics put to the cold reality of what was no doubt a long and trialling evening for all involved. There were obvious flaws in the ABS’ approach in the lead up to August 9 and for many including Brett Fairbank of PWC, the ABS was inviting trouble. And it was trouble they entertained.

In response to the failings of Census 2016 there has a fairly bellicose tone. The PM has said heads will roll, social media has done what it does best and spat out a simple hashtag representative of peoples experiences: #censusfail. However, despite all of these mistakes and flaws and all the time spent by Australians (myself included) pressing the refresh button on Tuesday night, it is important that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Certainly as has been pointed out there are failings, but we should look to these as potential learnings rather than regrets. This call has been echoed by among others the Australian Information Industry Association, CEO Rob Fitzpatrick stating: “Rather than calls to revert to the old way of doing something, such as going back to paper, we should be supporting our government to take stock, learn, make improvements, plug gaps, and do it better next time.”

I’ve been long arguing that governments need to take more risk, fail fast and learn with regards to new technologies. We often forget something that should be central to our consideration — risk can be both good and bad and must be balanced. It is important that there is a measure of control to the response to the failure of census and that we take an open, analytic approach to determining what went wrong so that next time the discussion is not around whether such a process should be digitalised but how the learnings of census 2016 can be built on. While no doubt painful politically, and costly financially the failings of census 2016 should be seen as a positive broader trend within the public service towards shifting large projects online, in what is undoubtedly the best interests of the public. There is no doubt that the backlash has stung and that the ABS is feeling the heat but this conversation is a much better sign than were it the case we were having a conversation similar to the one after the federal election where we scratched our heads and asked why can’t we do that online?

Census 2016 was a failure but it was also a sign of progress and most telling a measure of how far yet we need to go to fully innovate government. There is no doubt that the ABS needs to get smarter but the best way to learn is by experience and they will certainly will have gained plenty from this last week.

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