The Census: a Failure of National Humility

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Let the Australian census debacle be our lesson about arrogance rather than technology.

Last night, you may have heard, the Australian Bureau of Statistics took the census offline after several malicious denial of service (DoS) attacks.

This should have been expected. Its possibility should have been discussed by the ABS and the government in the lead-up to the census.

The possibility of a kind of failure should have been made apparent at all stages. Instead, however, everyone publicly backed themselves.

Everything we do in technology is a trial of some kind. We base entire project methodologies around the idea of failure. (Look at the Agile and Lean concepts.) It is ridiculous to mix this level of expected and controlled whoopsies with the arrogance of a government prioritising being correct over being careful.

Government has become more about not admitting mistakes than actually governing.

The Schadenfreude you see expressed by libertarians on social media this morning is not a response to technology failing as much as it is the comeuppance of an arrogant government.

Last night the Prime Minister tweeted that he successfully completed the census at his house. Then he offered no further tweets about the problems other people were having.

He offered no comment about the unfortunate people struggling in ABS server rooms or about how great it was to attempt something so bold as a predominantly online census.

Of course he couldn’t do that because we live in a culture where mistakes are treated with excuses rather than ownership and compassion.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

Imagine a different scenario: the government publicly treated the online census with caution. In this alteraverse they referred to the project as a “trial” and encouraged people to use it first and, if it failed, to swap to the paper form they were provided.

Maybe we could have supported them, in this other reality, if they had announced a plan to do something inventive and obviously for the public good with unused offline survey booklets:

The different ministries worked together and came up with a plan that conservationists, economists and social service workers universally applauded. The will turn unused census booklets into insulation or construction materials for makeshift housing for our increasing homeless population.

That’s not a real quote from anywhere. It’s a made up alternative universe; a dream; a fantasy.

Snap back to reality

Last night was a failure of our collective attitude towards big projects. We are so scared of being wrong that we would rather see everything come crashing down and do a piss-bolt out of the scene than preempt the possibility of things failing with public contingencies.

This morning’s news overflows with experts saying it was never going to work. That doesn’t help. What would those experts have done if it did work? Would they announce it as a triumph, hooking their trailer onto that passing star? Would they have stayed quiet? I doubt we’d see announcements from them saying they didn’t think it was possible.

We can’t keep dealing with technology issues in terms of absolutes. It does nothing but breed lack of confidence in our leaders and, more importantly, the technology to grow our reputation on an international competitive stage.

Australia: The Cautiously Optimistic Country

We need to get used to saying: “We’re not sure if this will work but we’re going to give it a go. And, by the way, this is the plan we have in place if it doesn’t work.”

Because a clever country plans. We have to stop saying we’re a clever country, stop hoping we’re a lucky country, and actually do the things we constantly pat ourselves on the back for. We need to encourage attitudes of planning, long-term research and revisiting premises.

We need to look beyond tomorrow’s headlines and next week’s opinion polls and beyond the interest of the power-hungry individuals who got us into this mess. They don’t care about us. We should stop giving them the power to hold us back. We’re better than this.