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Planning for Australia's 2021 census only 'partly effective' following 2016 debacle

The Guardian logo The Guardian 4 days ago Katharine Murphy, Political editor
a close up of a birthday cake: Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has not fully implemented improvements needed after the 2016 census debacle, particularly in relation to developing its cybersecurity for the next survey, according to the auditor general.

A worrying new assessment by the Australian National Audit Office has found planning for the next census is only “partly effective” and the ABS has “not put in place arrangements to ensure that improvements to its architecture framework, change management processes and cybersecurity measures will be implemented ahead of the 2021 census”.

a birthday cake made to look like a train: The 2016 census was marked by website crashes and privacy concerns and the auditor general says the ABS has not yet implemented all necessary cybersecurity measures for the 2021 census. © Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo The 2016 census was marked by website crashes and privacy concerns and the auditor general says the ABS has not yet implemented all necessary cybersecurity measures for the 2021 census.

The ANAO says the bureau has established largely appropriate planning and governance arrangements for the next census, but the risk framework is “compromised by weaknesses in the assurance arrangements”.

The auditor says the ABS has been partly effective in addressing key risks, implementing past census recommendations and ensuring timely delivery of the 2021 survey but it says “further management attention is required on the implementation and assessment of risk controls”.

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The audit, released on Thursday, was conducted to check whether or not lessons had been learned from 2016.

The last census was “digital first” but the websites crashed during peak time on census night.

The ABS had to close its online form for two days because of a failure of multiple information technology controls, particularly the online census form. As well as the IT disasters, there were also concerns about the privacy of personal information.


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The then Turnbull government and the ABS later explained the outage of the online census was the result of a systems failure and an “overcautious” response to a denial of service attack.

The then chief statistician, David Kalisch, later acknowledged the ABS had “stuffed up some things in the conduct of the 2016 census” and that “reflected not only on the ABS but on the reputation of government and the public sector more generally”.

The audit office said the failure of multiple IT controls during the 2016 census “reinforced the need for the ABS to implement robust planning arrangements for the 2021 census including for cybersecurity, procurement, and review recommendations”.

The ANAO said the technology framework for the 2021 census was “largely appropriate, however, the ABS’s implementation of its IT framework is not complete”. The ABS had not established a process to “mitigate the risk of unauthorised changes being implemented across systems supporting the census”.

The auditor said data handling practices were “partly appropriate”. The ABS had designed controls and arrangements to manage risks relating to data quality and protection of privacy but it had “not fully implemented” those controls and lacked “appropriate arrangements to monitor control implementation”.

When it came to cybersecurity, the ABS had established “partly appropriate measures”. The ANAO said the high-level measures and controls in the ABS’ cybersecurity strategy were “sound – however, the strategy has not been fully implemented”.

The auditor general made seven recommendations to the ABS covering planning, efficiency, IT systems and data, risk controls and implementing external review recommendations.

The ABS says it supports the ANAO’s recommendations to improve systems “and is in the process of implementing them in full before the August 2021 census”.

The organisation says it has “in parallel made significant progress responding to the issues identified in the report” and that progress has included “active steps to strengthen program governance and engagement with the ABS audit committee”.

The shadow assistant treasurer Stephen Jones said the ANAO assessment showed the government hadn’t absorbed the lessons of 2016.

“There’s a lot at stake,” Jones said. “Good decision making in government needs good census data. Every aspect of government requires accurate data. For marginalised communities it’s critical for health and education funding. For transport and infrastructure planning as well”.

“The Morrison government promised to fix the issues at the ABS, but haven’t followed through, and when you slash funding for agencies like the ABS this is what happens”.

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