Census meltdown played out in new FOI documents
Published: October 14, 2016 - 7:06PM
The night of Tuesday August 9 was meant to be the chance for every Australian
to be counted, with the federal government confident moving the census online
would proceed without a hitch.
But newly released Australian Bureau of Statistics documents show a very
A cascading series of emails released under freedom of information suggest
seven years of planning didn't cover how staff should communicate or respond to
a crash, with the subsequent meltdown culminating in Prime Minister Malcolm
Turnbull's office intervening around 10pm.
Days of preparation are laid out, with early emails showing staff preparing
social media posts, proofing screenshots and confirming plans for the hours
Co-operation around one early problem about content was quickly sorted.
"Thanks [redacted]," an email reads. "I can't tell you how big an issue this
could have been so really appreciate prompt action."
The first signs of concern emerged just before noon, as users had trouble
saving and submitting their forms.
Staff shared screenshots of "SERVICE TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE" messages, but
said the problems hadn't been widely shared on social media yet.
Later, staff were given approved messages to use in the event they were
"getting/seeing public enquiries about problems accessing or using the online
"Please monitor . . . for any activity that might alert us to any unusual
activity on online form, including anyone claiming to launch an attack or
successfully attacking," one email states.
Co-operation continued throughout the day.
"We're in sync," one staff member told another, followed by a smiley face emoji.
Emails with the subject line "website crashing" emerged just after 6pm, as
comments about error messages began to be received.
Standard talking points were shared for staff to respond, ranging from "the
online forms and websites are operating smoothly as expected" to "there's still
time" and "you can request a paper form".
Before 8pm, staff were told not to post to social media until there was an
update from technicians.
Despite the census being taken offline sometime around 8.30pm, ABS Twitter
accounts continued to direct the public towards the website because of apparent
outsourcing of social media control.
Those errors continued for nearly an hour as ABS staff tried to have a paid
advertisement removed at the direction of the federal government, with all
social media activity turned off by about 10pm.
Complaints from around the country were being heard.
"Can't express the extreme urgency around this now," one email warned at 10pm.
"Prime Minister's Office is now involved. Online form still unavailable,
investigations ongoing, no timeframe for resolution."
Another staff member said "everyone is aware of the severity".
After 11pm, Small Business Minister Michael McCormack approved a statement and
plans for the next morning were under way.
"I can confirm post speaking with [redacted named] just now we can: turn all TV
off by 10:00am tomoz morn; turn all radio off by 10:00am tomoz morn, turn all
digital OOH off by 9:00am tomoz morn; turn all cinema off by end of tomoz," one
staff member said, warning there would be cost implications for the plans.
"We are on standby here in office and will await to be instructed what else you
require use to do tonight post speaking with Prime Minister's office now," came
Census FOI by FairfaxPolitics on Scribd
All census activity was stopped by about 11.20pm. The public was told they
would not be fined for late completion of the form.
The ABS charged $1020 to release the partially redacted documents, obtained
through the Uncover the #CensusFail crowd funding effort led by frustrated
census user William Summers.
A Senate inquiry is under way to consider the bungled census, with a report due
to be released on November 24.
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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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