Last night Australia witnessed an amazing train wreck of leadership and damaged trust in what should be a trusted institution.

The hashtag #censusfail was globally number 1 on twitter, and despite the reassurances of the ABS in the lead up to census night that the website was both secure and had been tested to exceed the number of visitors, by 7.30pm AEST the website was shut down by the Government in what is most likely the most embarrassing situation the ABS has ever found itself in.census

I can understand why the Tax department or perhaps Immigration department could have trust problems with it’s stakeholders, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics has only one job, according to their website “…coordinating statistical activities and collaborating with official bodies in the collection, compilation, analysis and distribution of statistics.” They collect data, and provide meaningful statistics to help people make more informed decisions.

How did it come to this, and why did the actions of the ABS exacerbate the problem?



ABS funding

Excludes funding years most impacted by census (year prior to census and year of census). Figures based upon budget papers

It is clear that the ABS has been asked to do more with less over the past 20 years, and that this has led to problems with the statistics produced which contributed to economists being unable to trust the data provided by the ABS (for example on employment figures). I am sure this is a deeply challenging environment to both keep up with inflation and keep abreast of technology developments, however this does not excuse myopia about the broader challenges of engaging with an increasingly distrustful community.

As well as the census, one of the most important product of the ABS is the monthly employment statistics. By late 2014 the trust of information produced by the ABS was beginning to be undermined. In August 2014 after shifting the employment survey online and accepting a 75% reduction in the response rate, the number of Australians officially employed jumped an incredible 121,000. The next month, September, it dived 172,000, or it would have had the ABS not pleaded with users to ignore the seasonally adjusted numbers which it no longer trusted.


What would prompt 7 Australian senators to publicly state that they did not trust the ABS or it’s capabilities to capture, retain and secure data, and to provoke a court challenge about the ability to fine them $180 per day for not providing information?

It is the same thing that has created a Brexit, Donald Trump, the rise of Pauline Hanson and is a real and present threat in any business which wants to grow.

People’s trust of institutions is at an all time low.

And every business or organisation is tarred with the same brush as headline acts such as #censusfail.

Governments and institutions are seen to be playing to their indoctrinated ideologues and the lowest intelligence group in the community by running PR lines that are not authentic, often bare faced lies and generally are simply political games.

Here are some examples of why trust has been eroded in the mind of the public in the past few years;

  • NSA & Edward Snowden – 1.7m documents revealing that governments were illegally and secretly reading email and listening to any and every person
  • Wikileaks – multiple examples of Governments and corporations lying and covering up leading to a secret grand jury and the political asylum of founder Julian Assange
  • Mossack Fonseca –  11.5m documents demonstrating how 214,488 entities managed money offshore and how many were used for illegal purposes, including fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions
  • Volkswagon – Creating vehicle software to create 40 times less emissions during testing than real world conditions on 11 million cars
  • FIFA – 9 executives arrested for allegedly receiving $150m in bribes, wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering
  • Church sex scandal – Global sexual abuse of children by church members and subsequent cover up
  • Banking system – International collapse of the financial system and GFC resulting in only one arrest. Multiple Australian banking scandals without apparent consequence

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

In every case people in charge of a government or organisation have lied or covered up in order to hide illegal activities or protect themselves.

A bit like the boy who cried wolf, eventually people fail to trust all organisations and Governments.

And that is the problem both the ABS experienced and you will face if you are attempting to generate business. Because the foundation of business is trust.


How to create trust in a low trust world?

In his book “The 5 Dysfunctions of a team” Patrick Lencioni states the foundation must be trust, and the only way to create trust is by being authentic which involves vulnerability.

Unfortunately, when experiencing a crisis (and advised by lawyers and PR experts) many leaders can enter a dialogue which is primarily designed to protect their interests. More often than not, this comes across as being inauthentic and as the leader is not presenting as human and vulnerable, and subsequently people do not believe anything that is being presented. This only reinforces the lack of trust.

Equally if your corporate branding is full of stock images and glossy brochures will recipients wonder what the spin is trying to mask?

A skeptic might suggest that the glossier the brochure, the more a sales person is trying to overcome questionable value.

In order to create trust in a low trust world, it requires leadership, and trusted leaders are authentic and vulnerable and collaborate with people to achieve an outcome together.


What did the ABS do to exacerbate trust problems?

Lets begin by assuming that most people have forgotten or were not aware of economists questioning the validity of the ABS data.

  1. In the December media ‘quiet period’ the ABS released a change to the census, effectively seeking more data, to be retained for a longer period without community consultation and based purely on it’s own internal privacy assessment. This was in direct contradiction to an earlier independent assessment which recommended for the “abandonment of name matching”.  At the time this was not picked up by any media outlets. Effectively they said to the Australian people we don’t like the independent report and have decided we want more information about you and we believe it is justified, end of conversation.
  2. The former head statistician for the ABS said 5 months before the census when Australians find out what is going on, they will run “an active civil disobedience” campaign. “You may as well not run the census.” As media attention grew in subsequent months there was ample opportunity for the ABS to demonstrate leadership and collaboration with the public. Instead they maintained a position that they were indeed going to do whatever they liked irrespective of public concerns.
  3. It is important to separate the peoples trust in the Government to not use the data in the future for nefarious purposes, and the trust in the ABS’s capability to prevent the data being hacked by a third party. Both were legitimate concerns in the media frenzy that ensued, and whilst the first issue may be legitimised by an observation of both Wikileaks and NSA examples, the second issue is an emotive argument where the ABS is trying to argue that they had never been hacked, and that data was to be stored in two separate containers (a logical argument). Again this was the end of the argument from the ABS whereas the emotive response was that most global organisations have been hacked (think US Govt, Sony), why does the ABS think they are not living by the same rules – and the victim would be a persons privacy?
  4. By maintaining the line that no one should be concerned, that the ‘site was expected to handle 500,000 form submissions every hour’ and that peoples concerns were in fact ‘Rubbish‘ it created a ludicrous situation where the government department whose primary responsibility was counting, was unable to determine that in fact after dinner 24 million Australians (48 times the expected load) were likely to sit down to complete the census. This of course is likely to have led to the overload and crashing of the site, despite spending $54k to load test the website.
  5. Of course the day after the census, the ABS claimed that in fact there were 4 DDOS attacks on the website, which was quickly challenged by an absence of evidence to prove such data on any DDOS monitoring service. At this point the public feels as though the ABS is reading from a PR & spin handbook, and the truth may never be truly known.

What could the ABS have done to avoid trust problems?

Firstly, simply by considering that by engaging with the entire country, the ABS has a relationship with the public and that this relationship, like all others, is affected by trust.

That relationship is not controlled by the ability to enforce a fine, and therefore is not a master / servant relationship. Trust must be earned and maintained.

A broad spectrum of Australians believed that there was no justification to collect and retain more data for longer, and further, many viewed this as an invasion of privacy they had not agreed to. Perhaps the ABS were excited by the potential for big data to help solve a range of problems.

Next understand that, for all the reasons above, the public’s trust with institutions is at an all time low. In this low trust environment, how should our strategies and tactics be different? How can we adopt a type of hippocratic oath to do no harm to the trusted relationship we have with the public?

As the concerns grew from the public and media, enter a conversation in an authentic manner. Do not communicate as though it is from a lofty ivory tower where your version of reality is the only one.

When the website crashes, demonstrate authentic leadership and apologise. Don’t immediately point the finger at overseas hackers. Hold a press conference to say you don’t know what went wrong, but will leave no stone unturned until the full story is clear and when the full explanation is uncovered that you will make the entire contents public. Talk about the passion that the ABS has for statistics and why you back your entire team to learn from this mistake and commit to making things right. Seek forgiveness.

Leadership comes from trust, and in order to be trusted one must be prepared to be vulnerable. Sometimes we need to do what is right, not what the spin doctors say.





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