Story 7: Excellence in planning and governance

Delivering the 2021 Census


Success of an endeavour as large and complex as the Census requires a structured and disciplined approach to governance and planning. Milestones, risks, issues and dependencies all need to be managed across the many streams of work. Program and project reporting must drive necessary focus and remedial actions.

With the lessons from 2016 in mind, the 2021 Census team transformed the Census Program and staff mindset in terms of preparation, readiness and adaptability. An important element included changes to governance, risk, issues and crisis management and how independent experts were engaged to test our thinking and systems.

Governance and risk management

The Census is challenging given its scale and complexity. Decisions or changes in one aspect of the program often affect other parts of the program. As a result, it is vital to have an effective governance structure with strong communication across all levels of the program.

The program adopted the Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) methodology with adaptations to manage the huge scale of the 2021 Census. The program implemented a structured framework in alignment with MSP methodology to manage the complexity and risks inherent to the Census. This included planning and control, risk and issue management, quality and assurance management and program organisation. The program approach was complemented by effective project management arrangements.

For the 2021 Census the ABS implemented a governance model with clear accountability arrangements. The governance model was supported by three layers of assurance to ensure the program met its objectives. Monitoring and control activities increased as the program moved closer to the operations phase. This enabled the ABS to identify areas of concern earlier and apply the necessary attention to them.

Diagram of the governance structure for the 2021 Census
This diagram is of the 2021 Census Governance structure. The diagram is colour coded to indicate whether the roles are mostly external membership (these are blue); mostly ABS employees (these are amber) and those that are all ABS employees (these are green). The diagram shows three layers of assurance: • The first being the Census Executive board chaired by the Australian Statistician with their role described below. It is coloured half blue and half amber. • The second being the Census Delivery Committee chaired by the Deputy Statistician with their role described below. It is coloured predominantly amber. • The third being the line management from the Census Leadership Group comprising project leads for each part of the program who report to the General Manager of the program who report to the Senior Responsible Officer for the Census. These are all green. Each layer is supported by the Census Program Management Office, coloured green and overseen by an Independent Program Assurer, coloured blue, who’s role is described further below. The Technology and Security Division are in a separate part of the organisation with a General Manager and multiple Program Managers (all green). They report delivery to the Census General Manager. There is a separate ICT Census Governance forum (coloured amber) for sign off on ICT decisions. The Enterprise Strategy and Communications division also are in a separate part of the organisation with a General Manager and multiple Program Managers (all green). They also report progress and final sign off to the Census General Manager. There is a separate Census Communications Executive Meeting (coloured amber) for sign off of Census Communications decisions.

Primary oversight for the program was provided by the 2021 Census Executive Board, which had responsibility for overseeing the strategic direction of the Program and making decisions about policy, priorities, and direction. Sub-committees to the 2021 Census Executive Board provided advisory, monitoring and review functions to support the implementation of the program, both within the program structure and across the broader ABS.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) audited the planning of the 2021 Census in 2020 to assess whether we had learned and implemented lessons from the 2016 Census. The audit investigated whether we:

  • had established appropriate oversight frameworks for the Census
  • were taking appropriate steps in developing IT systems for the Census
  • were addressing key Census risks and implementing Census recommendations from previous reviews. These included the 2016 Issues of Trust Senate Inquiry and the MacGibbon Review into the events surrounding the outage of the online Census form.

The audit found our planning was partly effective and we had “established largely appropriate planning and governance arrangements for the Census”. It made seven recommendations related to program oversight and assurance, data quality, privacy, risk and security. We accepted all the recommendations and implemented them before Census day.

Risk management formed an integral part of Census program design and delivery. A comprehensive, but pragmatic approach to risk management ensured we were able to quickly identify, evaluate and respond to risks and issues as they arose.

We continually monitored the external environment to identify any factors that may cause risk. With an evolving COVID-19 environment, the risk management approach served us well.

The main areas of focus to ensure had low or no risk were:

  • work, health and safety of staff and members of the public
  • compliance with acts and government policies
  • statistical data quality
  • security and confidentiality
  • the public’s trust and our social licence.
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Photo of Thérèse Lalor holding her dog
In memory of Thérèse Lalor, Director of the 2021 Census Program Management Office, and a highly valued member of the Census Leadership Team.

Thérèse Lalor joined the 2021 Census Program in August 2019 having worked at the ABS for 16 years. 

The success of the 2021 Census was, in no small part, due to Thérèse’s work as Director of the Program Management Office. Thérèse brought colour and movement to the Census Program Management Office where she lifted the capability of the section and the Census leadership team more broadly with her professionalism, talent and expertise.

Thérèse brought her team and the Census Leadership Group along the journey through her cheerful, positive and professional demeanour. She was approachable and had a knack of explaining project management simply. 

Thérèse made an enormous contribution to guiding the 2021 Census with her approach to project management.

Thérèse passed away on 23 February 2022 after helping to deliver a successful 2021 Census. Thérèse is sorely missed and fondly remembered by the Census Leadership team, her colleagues and friends across the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

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Independent assurance

Throughout the Census cycle, we ensured expert external perspectives were brought to governance and assurance functions.

Independent program assurer

The ABS engaged professional services firm, KPMG as the whole of program assurer to monitor and report on all Census activities. KPMG’s role was to challenge, broker and review the quality of the Census program against deliverables. This included considering the integrity of reporting and mitigation strategies for emerging risks and issues. In undertaking this role, KPMG used a broad range of specialists from across their company. Taking a program wide view meant they could support dependency management as well as provide assurance in respect of individual streams of work. The independent program assurer reported directly to the Census Senior Responsible Officer and Australian Statistician.

Independent program board members

The Census program governance committees included both private and public external board members who had extensive experience delivering large projects. They included senior executives from Telstra, the Australian Taxation Office, Queensland Treasury, the Australian Electoral Commission, IIS Partners and the Digital Transformation Agency.

Independent professional testing

The ABS has significant expertise in testing systems and processes. However, there are areas where support from experts across a range of testing areas, was required to provide additional capacity and skills. In some cases, we sourced a separate layer of independent testing to that already provided by our partners delivering whole solutions.

We engaged external experts to test areas such as:

  • accessibility – Intopia and Vision Australia
  • system performance – Ampion (formerly known as Revolution IT)
  • device and browser compatibility – Ampion
  • security – Cyconsol, North, Cyber CX and Redwolf
  • behavioural economics – the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government
  • public sentiment – Meld Studios, Kantar Public.

Statistical Independent Assurance Panel

In 2016, we established a Statistical Independent Assurance Panel to review the quality of Census data. The Panel concluded the data was fit-for-purpose and provided recommendations on ways to improve future censuses particularly in how we:

  • determine occupancy
  • impute for non-response
  • determine dwelling structure
  • collect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data
  • collect in non-private dwellings
  • address privacy.

The ABS implemented all their recommendations each of which successfully improved outcomes in the 2021 Census. This panel was reconstituted, with some overlap in membership, for 2021 and has undertaken a similar role to 2016.

The 2021 Census Statistical Independent Assurance Panel findings were released on 28 June 2022 the same day as the 2021 Census data - first release. The Panel concluded that the 2021 Census data is fit-for-purpose, is of comparable quality to the 2011 and 2016 Censuses and can be used with confidence.

An excerpt from the Panel report: “The high response rate for private dwellings (96.1%) was an outstanding achievement given the challenges provided by the pandemic and is comparable to response rates seen in other countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, which undertook censuses during the pandemic, and higher than that of New Zealand, where the census was conducted pre-pandemic.”

The 2021 panel identified eight opportunities for enhancing future Censuses, all of which are being actively considered by the 2026 Census team.

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Partnering with external expertise

Every Census we rely on private partnerships to help us deliver some of our large-scale logistics and specialist operations. Many of these partners have been involved in the Census before and have developed a detailed understanding of critical aspects of our business. This Census we worked with more than 50 private sector providers, including 30 IT vendors.

Helping these businesses to understand our processes and outcomes is critical to delivering a successful Census.

There are some fundamental reasons these partnerships are successful:

  1. Carefully chosen – we conduct strictly controlled tenders and do extensive research to ensure the product or service offering will meet Census needs. This ensures there are no surprises during delivery.
  2. Both sides have ‘skin in the game’ – vendors need to be committed to the success of the Census. They need to understand our needs and the benefit to their reputation and their products in working with us.
  3. We have collaborative relationships – we work closely with our partners and they provide personal support and understand our needs.
  4. There is strong governance – this ensures good project management and focus on decisions to ensure delivery of outcomes with well-managed risks.
  5. There is coordination and integration – the solution the vendor provides fits well with other Census services.
  6. We have regular reviews – this often involves independent reviews of important parts of some contracts, particularly how the contract is working for the ABS and the vendor.

Below are some of the key private partners for the 2021 Census:

  • PwC Australia in partnership with Amazon Web Services built the Census Digital Service and Census website.
  • Recruitment agency Adecco recruited most of our short-term field and processing staff.
  • BMF designed our 'Every stat tells a story' advertising campaign.
  • Fuji Xerox were responsible for printing and mail house services.
  • Australia Post delivered 8.3 million approach letters, 2.7 million reminder letters and returned nearly two million paper forms to our processing centre.

The Census is a whole of government delivery project. Also critical in our success were the many government partners, notably:

  • Services Australia
  • Digital Transformation Agency
  • Australian Cyber Security Centre
  • all state and territory governments.
Image of logos of external partners

Some of our partners

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Issues and crisis management

The issues and crisis management framework and planning for the 2021 Census Program was shaped by reviews into the 2016 Census, as well as by lessons from the 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. The Framework was aligned with the ABS Incident Management Framework and based on the Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System – the nationally recognised system of incident management for Australia’s fire and emergency service agencies.

'Plan for things to go wrong and ensure sufficient investment in issues management and disaster recovery plans and strategies.' – Duncan Young, 2016 Census Program Manager, in the evaluation of the 2016 Census.

‘Crisis plans existed but appear not to have been fully tested, nor were they consulted when most needed.’ - extract from the ‘Review of the events surrounding the 2016 Census’.

The Issues and Crisis Management team assessed, escalated, coordinated, and supported the decision-making process for major incidents and critical events that were raised. For each issue, clearly defined roles and responsibilities were established, including a chairperson, decision maker, issue controller, action owners and note takers.

We worked closely with experts in issues and crisis management, SOCOM, who provided us with important, professional guidance.

The 2021 Census issues management process
A flow chart of issues and incident management showing the tasks to do in order are Assess, Decide and Act. In the Assess step, issues and incidents are assessed as: Level 1 which are low impact and managed by operational areas. Decisions for these are made by the relevant operational executive. Level 2 which are medium impact; are cross cutting different parts of the program and could escalate to bigger issues if not managed appropriately. Level 2 needs decisions at the Program level. Level 3 which are high impact and have a significant risk to the operations, health and safety or reputation of the ABS. For these, a decide room is established and all decisions for them are required by the Senior Responsible Officer.

In the planning for the Census, operational areas were provided training and prepared their action plans to respond to predicted operational issues. More than 130 action plans were developed for the 2021 Census.

An important aspect of the planning was to routinely conduct simulated scenarios that covered the most likely and most critical things that could go wrong. This was about building ‘muscle memory’ so that staff were prepared, and had time to plan for process improvement, and build team coherence and confidence. These simulation exercises started about three months before the operational readiness exercise in 2020 and were conducted regularly until final Census operations commenced.

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A simulation exercise

‘A significant outage of the Census form’ was simulated in April 2021. The issue was treated as a ‘true event’ by key staff required for that incident, including several major vendors.

In another room the exercise was observed by senior staff from the Minister’s office, the ABS, Department of the Treasury, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australian Cyber Security Centre, Digital Transformation Agency, Services Australia and KPMG. At the end of the session the observers were asked to suggest improvements to the process.

All were impressed with the thoroughness of the process. Many commented they had not participated in such an exercise before and were keen to conduct similar exercises in their own organisations. All offered their support in dealing with any major incident that might occur during the Census operations.

All left confident that the ABS was far more prepared for many risks than in 2016.

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The 2021 Census collection operations period was notable for the absence of any major incident or issue and the strong support received from stakeholders both during and after it.


  • 15 major simulation exercises were conducted
  • 134 Response Action Plans were prepared across the Census collection operations period
  • 17 Level 2 incidents occurred during the Census operations period. All were successfully managed and resolved in a timely manner
  • No Level 3 incidents occurred.

Following a Level 2 event, one Census Executive said, ‘The approach was a really good way of making swift decisions and making sure everyone was aware of the changes and decisions’.

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Staying focused

‘When an incident or crisis presents itself, it is hard to stay focused. The adrenalin starts pumping and the emotions start to escalate – especially when this experience is new to you and your team.

Operating in this heightened state is not the best way to quickly gain clarity of the situation, determine and implement the best response and try to return to business-as-usual operations having minimised the impact on people and the organisation.

It is important to have a process the team can trust, follow and then practice implementing under stress.

After several training sessions and a few simulation exercises, the Census team began to trust the Assess, Decide, Act process. The results were transformational.

The day before Census 2021, there was a meeting to discuss an actual level 2 incident. Everyone in the room was calm and focused on understanding the situation and determining the outcomes that the Census needed to achieve to address the situation.

Within 20 minutes, the meeting was over and people started to work on the action plans to achieve the outcomes. Well done Census team, it was validation that they had listened, learnt and achieved.’

- David Hawkins, Managing Director of SOCOM

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