‘Crippling’ IT problems at ABS, say union members

CPSU says inadequate funding for the Australian Bureau of Statistics had a significant role in the Census debacle

The Community and Public Sector Union has defended the professionalism of staff at the Australian Bureau of Statistics who worked on the 2016 Census, linking the problems with this year’s Census to funding cuts and inadequate resources at the agency.

“Financial pressures and the need to generate savings has affected Census work,” states a submission (PDF) by the CPSU to a Senate inquiry into the Census. The government has commissioned its own review of the Census, which is expected to be released this month.

The Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on Cyber Security, Alastair MacGibbon, is leading the government's review. Earlier this month he said he expected an ongoing impact on trust in government digital services in the wake of the debacle.

The online Census website was pulled offline on Census night by the ABS after a series of denial of service attacks. Both the ABS and contractor IBM have been criticised over their handling of the Census.

The CPSU, which counts ABS employees among its members, said that the uncertainty over whether this year’s Census would go ahead or whether the government would ditch it to help pay for critical upgrades to IT systems meant that “critical planning time was lost”.

The decision to retain for an extended period name and address data gathered during the Census was driven in part by seeking to drive efficiencies in the ABS’s work, the union said.

Delays with preparations for the Census “meant the deadlines were missed and testing was not as extensive as it had been in the past,” the CPSU said.

“With limited time and resources as a result of Government indecision and budget cuts, ABS employees did the best they could but were not as thorough as they would have liked.”

“With all the delays, we had to descope and as part of this, we were unable to run our dress rehearsal (an end to end test of systems and processes) in 2015,” an unnamed ABS employee and CPSU member is quoted as saying. “Instead, we only ran tests on a couple of targeted systems and processes. While it wouldn’t solve all the problems, we definitely would have benefited from doing this test as we always have in the past.”

Another CPSU member is quoted as saying that the ABS’s approach to risk management was “to risk assess the hell out of it – ‘yep it could go pear shaped’... but there did not seem to be any preparation/contingencies ready to go.”

The CPSU said it had raised concerns about the adequacy of government funding for the ABS in every federal budget submission for the past three years. Inadequate funding has affected the quality of data collected by the bureau, the union said.

In a survey of CPSU members at ABS, 83 per cent said there had been ICT and tech issues. A CPSU member described IT problems at the ABS as “crippling”.

The Senate inquiry is due to report by 24 November.

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