back to top

Postal Survey Will Be "Census Fail 2.0", Say Public Servants Working On Online Voting

"The minister just made up a date and expected the ABS to be able to cope with it."

Posted on

Public servants tasked with completing the online voting component of the same-sex marriage postal survey are predicting a failure on the scale of last year's Census.

Sources at the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) have told BuzzFeed News the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is already behind schedule to deliver the online form that will allow people in remote areas of Australia, travelling, or living overseas, to participate in the survey.

The DTA has been called in to provide expert advice on delivering the digital side of the survey. But staff at the government agency claim the direction from acting special minister of state, Mathias Cormann, overrules its Digital Service Standard, a set of guidelines that every other project needs to meet.

Staff members were told normal procedure, including sufficient user testing, has been forgone to ensure the quick turnaround timeline is met.

Officially, DTA was only supposed to consult for three days on the survey's cyber security environment, and quality of the online experience of the survey for users.

But staff told BuzzFeed News they are still providing unofficial advice to the ABS, which is struggling to get all online components ready in time.

Staff say the website to register for a secure access code to vote online has an internal deadline for completion of September 15, but isn't close to being ready.

When asked if the page would be ready by September 15, the ABS referred BuzzFeed News to its website which lists the page's launch date as September 25.

The secure access code registration form will also require people to supply identity documents for a manual check, which is not usual practice in surveys run by the ABS.

"The government has not given [the ABS] enough time to build something that is best practice and as a result the ABS is gonna cop a lot of crap for this," a DTA worker told BuzzFeed News.

"The DTA was not consulted about appropriate timelines for developing a whole new digital service – the minister just made up a date and expected the ABS to be able to cope with it."

Cormann told BuzzFeed News the DTA is involved on a "business as usual basis" with the ABS, and is providing "strategic support and advice regarding form usability and online services".

"It is in this context that the ABS has and continues to work closely with the DTA and Digital Service Standards across a range of ABS online activities, including the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey," Cormann said.

The DTA said it did not have an ongoing role in the survey.

Cormann and the DTA also denied that the postal survey breached the agency's Digital Service Standard.

But staff don't agree. They told BuzzFeed News they don't condone the project or the way it is being run, and believe it goes directly against four points in the mandatory standard, including not consulting user research prior to building the website.

Staff are predicting a repeat of last year's Census debacle nicknamed #censusfail and have been warned by bosses to be careful.

"It's going to be #censusfail 2.0 and our execs don't want us too involved because they're worried it could be blamed on us," a staff member said.

Deputy statistician Jonathan Palmer told a Senate inquiry that his boss, Australian statistician David Kalisch, was given just one day's notice that the ABS would be tasked with running the survey before it was announced publicly.

Physical survey forms will be mailed out to registered voters from Tuesday, with survey packets expected to arrive by Monday September 25. Forms must be returned by November 7 to be included in the count.

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told Triple M radio on Monday that Australia Post only has the capacity to send 600,000 surveys per day. It will take more than two weeks to send out forms to the 16 million Australians enrolled to vote.

Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.

Contact Alice Workman at

Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Lane Sainty at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.