Making census of damned statistics
15 Aug 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Peter Kelly

‘There are only two people I trust, God and the Commonwealth Statistician.’

So said Billy Hughes—statesman and patriot, renegade and mountebank—Australia’s seventh prime minister and federal MP for a record 51 years.

Whatever the trust in God these days, the Bureau of Statistics has just shredded its Hughes-conferred mantle.

Stats has run an unhappy experiment to see if a great Commonwealth institution can burn a century of trust in a single night.

The Bureau was trading on its long and august history—trust us!—by keeping name and address data from the census for four years to create ‘linkage keys’ for data from other sources (health, traffic, education, criminal). Some federal pollies protested they’d refuse to put their names on the census form. Not much Hughes-like trust there.

Then the debacle on census night, last Tuesday, when the Bureau took down the online census site because of distributed denial of service attempts and failures of the ABS’ systems.

Tuesday’s failure caused a prime ministerial explosion that Billy Hughes would have enjoyed while being surprised at the target.

Malcolm Turnbull birched the Bureau for a stuff up that should have been predicted, planned for and prevented: ‘I, too, am very angry about this. I am bitterly disappointed about this. This has clearly been a failure on the part of the ABS, absolutely.’

As with all good Canberra stories, this can be sliced and diced in many ways. Here are some slices.

Trust and Oz institutions: Stats is a fine example of the way Australia does public institutions—practical and pragmatic but with a big pinch of principle. As the Billy Hughes quote illustrates, politicians can’t fiddle with Australia’s figures—no Chinese massage or Argentine argy-bargy with our statistics.

From the very start of white settlement, the figures had to be right and reliable. The yearly statistical dispatch to London tracked the new colony’s population and available food supplies. Get the figures wrong and convicts and guards go hungry.

Today the ABS tracks inflation, provides the population data for electoral boundaries, and its data determines tax distributions among the states. And no political finger dips into one digit of the data. Such quality public institutions are an international competitive advantage as well as great national resource.

Competence: As the sage H.L. Mencken observed: ‘The older I get, the more I long for simple competence.’ Unfortunately, competence is seldom simple. And in the digital era, unlike the analogue age, there aren’t shades of success. The binary/digital stuff either works or it doesn’t. Suddenly the old-fashioned pencil-and-paper approach of the other big national count we’ve just done—the federal election—looks reassuringly resilient. After the ABS debacle anyone pushing for electronic voting systems in the Australian Electoral Commission will risk a stint in the silly corner.

Digital disruption to digital disrepute: Now even the most computer illiterate Canberra manager knows the difference between a hack and a distributed denial of service attack. Not least in the ABS humiliation is the Turnbull shaft that Stats took down its own site ‘out of an abundance of caution’ after being spooked by anomalous traffic that was quite innocent.

Damage report: The online census reopened on Thursday, 48 hours after going off-line, on advice from the Australian Signals Directorate that it was safe to try again. No personal information has been lost, stolen or mishandled.

Cuts have impacts: The ABS has suffered the budget squeeze. It no longer has the staff to do a full range of statistical surveys. Like so much of the Australian public service, continual budget cuts can eat at a great institution.

As Laura Tingle notes, ‘the ABS has been the subject of a long-term degradation in its capacity under both sides of politics. A sign of the neglect—even contempt—in which the bureau seemed to be held by the Abbott government was that the job of chief statistician was left empty for almost a year… It has lost hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget in recent years and hundreds of people over the best part of a decade. In January 2014 it sought a $300 million bailout, arguing that its financial position left it “with barely enough cash to keep the lights on”.’

Stats was struggling with a 40-year-old IT system and inadequate resources, which led to …

The consultant curse, consultant charm: The computer/software companies have enjoyed golden decades in Canberra. If the project goes well, the consultants leave as rich heroes; if it tanks, they still leave rich.

Stats gave its money and trust to IBM and was left holding an ugly baby. It’s a nasty, public version of what’s now an old Canberra yarn.

Outsourcing of computer and data functions is a regular source of dark farce and black comedy. How much can the public service outsource before it loses control of what it’s supposed to be administering?

A few recent comments by that well-known computer nerd Malcolm Turnbull suggest the PM’s less-than-gruntled view about the impact of outsourcing. Old decisions linger to haunt. The ABS wasn’t in control of its own fate because it wasn’t in control.

Retribution will follow: Heads will roll. First, there’ll be an inquiry. Billy Hughes would understand the order. Some political customs are ageless.

Cyberlessons: The review by the Government Cyber Security Adviser, Alastair MacGibbon, can be more than the witch hunt to select appropriate heads. Earlier this year, MacGibbon and Turnbull offered useful metrics.

Releasing the Cyber Security Strategy in April, the Prime Minister pledged to be more explicit about cyber-crime successes and failures and hack attacks: ‘Only by acknowledging, explaining and analysing the problem can we hope to impose costs on perpetrators and empower our private citizens and government agencies and businesses to take effective security measures.’

Alastair MacGibbon posed the dilemma: ‘The question is how open a government can be about cyber-security without causing further damage and without hanging out all the government’s crown jewels?’

The disaster all happened in plain sight. A full public accounting will serve that Turnbull aim of empowering citizens and agencies.

The Bureau of Statistics is an institutional jewel that needs a bit of burnishing to deal with the tarnish on the trust.