Friday, February 27, 2015

It's a good time to rethink the approach to Australia's Census

The first censuses reportedly took place around 5,000 years ago in Egypt, and the approach is mentioned in Exodus, one of the books of the Bible, commissioned by God in order to levy a per capita tax to upkeep the Israelite Tabernacle.

The ancient Greeks, Chinese and Indians all conducted censuses before 1 AD, and censuses were vital for the Romans to levy the taxes that maintained their empire.

More recently, the Domesday book was commissioned by William the Conquerer, also known as William I of England, to properly tax the land he had conquered from the Saxons.

Independently the Inca Empire in South America, who had no written language, conducted censuses in the 15th century using base-ten notation knots in llama hair string.

In modern times over a hundred nations have conducted censuses on a regular or semi-regular basis, with nations like the US and UK conducting them every year and Australia every five.

A census collector from Egypt in 3000BC would probably have found it easy to comprehend the censuses Australia conducted in the 1990s.

While there's more questions today, the method of collecting census information had changed very little until recently.

Up until the introduction of electronic censuses this century, nations sent thousands of census collectors out and distributed millions of census forms for completion.  The collected data was then returned to central points for collation and analysis.

Now the ABS has prepared a paper to government suggesting that they may have better techniques for estimating population statistics rather than conducting an expensive national Census every five years.

This suggestion has caused media controversy, a public backlash and even a campaign to 'save our census'. Australians feel a sense of ownership over the Census, particularly after the fantastic work done by the ABS last census to engage people via social media and interactive tools.

However I think it's a good and appropriate conversation to have right now. We've advanced enormously technologically and scientifically in the last ten years, not to mention the last 5,000.

In fact, if you really think about it, conducting the census in a way that would be familiar to the Romans or William the Conquerer really doesn't make sense for the 21st Century.

With the data collection techniques available now, and the expertise we have in data analytics and prediction, surely we can find more cost-effective and less invasive ways of taking stock of our population than having every household fill in a form on one night.

So while I appreciate the concerns people have about change, and the nostalgia for our census-takers, I applaud the ABS and government for at least considering new approaches to the census.

If we truly want to digitally transform our government and society, we need to challenge practices that have become the norm.

This means not simply updating them (such as making a paper form electronic), but completely rethinking them beginning with our goals, applying the most appropriate approaches to data collection and analysis, and rethinking how we share and use the data for the benefit of society.

This needs to be done with an eye to improving outcomes, avoiding outcomes such as in Canada where it was about money, not quality. It also needs to be done with an effective change management campaign, involving the public in the debate.

Ignoring these two areas risks a messy and difficult process of reconsidering the Census, likely with poor outcomes both for the current government and for Australia.

However a well-thought-out public engagement campaign, combined with clearly superior techniques of collecting and analysing data could be a win for both.

I look forward to the day when children learn about the census in their history books, a system that was great for 5,000 years but was superseded by more effective techniques as humans advanced.

And I look forward to seeing more sacred cows in government and business challenged wisely and effectively with appropriate public engagement.


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