Uncover the #CensusFail Twitter strategy

By William Summers

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I’m trying to find out more about the Census night disaster.

Remember the Census a couple of weeks ago? Yep, of course you do. A huge mess of confusion, technical failure and poor communication.

Like you (probably), I spent about an hour trying to fill out my form on the evening of 9 August, getting nothing in return but website errors. Little did we know at the time, the whole site had already been taken down by 7.45pm.

It’s just that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Twitter feed ( @ABSCensus) didn’t tell us until nearly 9pm that it was impossible to complete the form.

In fact, instead of warning us about the glitches, the ABS Twitter feed continued to deny there was a problem even when the ABS knew the site had been taken down.

That’s why I put in a FOI request.

I put in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) asking for information about the ABS Twitter response on that fateful evening. I want to see when they knew there was a problem, and how they decided to deal with it. My request asked for:

"Copies of all emails, memos or other written documents sent to and from the Census Communications team on census day (Tue 9 August), specifically relating to the @ABSCensus Twitter feed and tweets by that account."

A simple request, huh? That’s what I thought too.

Then I was hit with a big bill…

I didn’t hear anything from ABS until 22 August. Then they emailed me with this:

$1020? That sounds like a lot!

The way they have worked this out is to say it will take them a total of 20 hours just to find this information (which I would have thought is pretty much just a search of inboxes using the word ‘Twitter’), then another 41 hours (yes 41!) to sit in a room and decide what they should do with it.

Just to put that into context, 41 hours is more than a week’s work for one staff member, or a half-day session of decision making by 10 people, all sat around discussing my request.

With decision making like that, it’s no wonder they got in such a pickle…

I could appeal the decision…

The FOI Act has a clause allowing me to appeal the cost calculation. I could do that. The problem is – as the ABS fully knows – that this would give them up to 30 days more to delay giving me an answer to this request, and even then they may just say ‘no’.

I could then go to the Information Commissioner, but it’s more delay and means the issue would no longer be current. It’s now or never!!

That’s why I’m asking people to chip in.

The ABS hasn’t had a good run of it, and I mean no ill towards them. However it is really important that when things go wrong, people are held accountable for it.

I believe in transparency of public policy, which is why I think this information should become public.

But I can’t afford to pay over $1,000 for a bunch of emails! I will happily pay towards this, but if I can find 200 people who feel the same as me about #CensusFail, accountability and transparency, we can hit the amount needed by just chipping in five bucks each.

Can you help get this information by chipping into the pot?

Where will the money go?

The money raised will go to pay this bill and uncover the information. I can't promise it will amount to much, but it is important to hold ABS to account.

Anyway, the $1,020 they raise from this could be well spent by the ABS on upgrading their IT security, hiring an expert to stop it happening again, or improving their communications.

Any excess cash will go to the Smith Family children’s education charity to help Australian children learn how to count.

What’s in it for contributors?

As well as becoming a certified legend, I’ll share the information with all everybody who contributes as soon as I get it. It's a joint effort.

Plus, if you chip in $25 or more*, I’ll even send you one of my special hand-made ‘I Love Census’ pens. Each one is completely unique.

* If you want a pen make sure you donate using the #CensusPen button otherwise I'll assume you don't want one :(

Who am I and why do I care so much?

Good question. I’m just a private citizen who wasted too much time trying to fill in the census on 9 August and has now been hit with a big bill to find out why.

I'm also on Twitter at @william_summers.

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