Story 9: Innovations in the field
In the 2021 Census, we made several changes to the way we operated in the field. This led to more efficient processes for managers in the office and an improved experience for field staff and the public.
Field staff operations were previously a hierarchical structure across four levels. Each level recruited and trained teams that reported to them. While this model prior to the 2021 Census was effective for enabling local decision making, managing workloads and follow-up in standard ways across the country was very difficult.
With the new national address list approach described earlier, local decision making was no longer as necessary. In contrast, national decisions and communications became more important, such as recruiting or redirecting staff into lower responding areas or areas with recruitment issues.
The centralised Field Operations Management model was supported by a suite of technology applications.
After Census day, we sent all non-responding dwellings a reminder letter and shortly after that, we visited any that had not responded. This meant we needed to divide two million non-responding addresses between the 33,000 field staff. We developed the Automatic Workload Allocation Tool, which divided these addresses into a group of addresses each field officer needed to visit (called a workload). The tool is a complex mathematical problem solver that calculated distances needed to be travelled by field staff from their homes and between dwellings. As planned, it proved to be far more efficient and timely than undertaking this process manually.
Central to the field staff role was a mobile app, MyWork, developed by IT vendor Tigerspike, that staff installed on their devices. MyWork provided staff with their workloads, including a list and map of addresses they needed to visit, and led them through the tasks they needed to undertake for each dwelling. The app worked both online or offline allowing field officers full functionality when working in remote locations across Australia with little or no connectivity.
The offline capability enabled the ABS to digitise field operations in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In the past, collection was done on paper with the data later transcribed into our systems. Digitisation enabled office staff to identify missing dwellings while field staff were still in the area.
Census field staff also had access to the online Knowledge Base, which contained all Census procedures and supporting information. The Knowledge Base was also a communication tool, with notices providing important updates for field staff, particularly because of the pandemic.
For the first time, in the 2021 Census, the ABS used an external payroll provider, EPI-USE, to pay field staff. The EPI-USE mobile app allowed staff to enter claims for time worked and travel. This service provided value for money and it was easy for staff to use. In 2021, we also changed the payment model from expected hours of work to a simpler pay by the hour model that proved very popular with the staff.
Central Field Operations Management model
The centralised Field Operations Management team were based in Canberra, with smaller teams in Melbourne and Darwin. This team peaked at 369 staff in August 2021 and included sections for:
- operations management
- field management and training
- special collection areas
- workload management for the field officers
- frame (address list) management
- IT systems support
- the field staff support centre
Each team had specific roles, importantly allowing teams to focus on areas of expertise.
The field staff support centre team had a single help line that serviced more than 76,000 calls. Of these calls, 80% were solved on the first call and 20% were escalated to specialist teams. This included help on procedures, workloads, technical issues, and work health and safety support.
Separate phone lines were provided for recruitment queries to the recruitment agency, ADECCO, and pay queries to payroll specialists, EPI-USE. Both these agencies had dedicated teams of 50 to 60 people.
The delivery of field staff training was also centralised. Field managers were trained by a central training unit and then directly trained their field officers. This led to consistent interpretation of procedures and efficient training.
Due to the COVID-19 related restrictions on travel, we delivered field manager training through Zoom. This required us to rapidly adapt content to enable online delivery and upskill the trainers. The majority of field staff were trained online and most field managers when asked for feedback said they felt confident in their roles following the training.
The ABS sourced a large temporary workforce of around 34,000 ABS officers for the 2021 Census. Recruitment of field staff was conducted jointly by ADECCO and the ABS. In urban areas across the country ADECCO advertised, received online applications, and vetted candidates according to targets set by the ABS. ADECCO recruited approximately 20,000 temporary Census staff this way. The remaining staff were recruited directly by the ABS. In outer regional and remote areas of Australia the ABS had multiple strategies, sometimes using ADECCO candidate lists but also more direct approaches through local community engagement, field staff contacts (often friends and families), grey nomad social sites, and newsletters to former Census employees. In areas of high recruitment difficulty, the ABS redeployed existing Census staff from surrounding areas.
The shifts outlined above led to efficiencies and improved outcomes, notably increased response rates in many areas. The centralised model enabled us to take advantage of many well-designed processes and technologies. Decision making, resourcing and communication were streamlined and efficient.