Issues management lessons from the 2016 Census.

Tuesday 9th August 2016 was meant to be census night in Australia, our “moment to make a difference and help shape Australia’s future”, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). It was also to be the first census completed online by the majority of the population. However, the 2016 Census quickly turned into an issues management disaster for the ABS, when the website stopped responding. The public could not get online to complete their census, social media went into overdrive with people venting their disbelief and in the end, the ABS decided to take the website down.

What happened is still not entirely clear, but what is clear is that the situation could have been handled a whole lot better by those in charge. The 2016 Census is a timely reminder for anyone in PR and communications that it pays to be prepared, for anything and everything.

Here are 4 lessons in issues management that we can all learn from the 2016 Census.

Have a plan for every eventuality.

When things go wrong, as they often do, you need to have a plan for how you’re going to handle it and what you’re going to do. Planning and organisation is the difference between managing an issue as opposed to a crisis.

The starting point for developing an issues management plan is to think of all the things that could possibly go wrong and work out a structured plan for each eventuality. Fires, worker injuries, system failures, and so on – the list can get very long.  In each instance, the scenario needs to be thought through, with a plan of action developed for each one.

In the case of the 2016 Census, going online for the first time marked a big change for the ABS, which should have meant that all possible issues were planned for, be it hacking, Denial Of Service (DOS) attacks, or the capacity of the website to withstand more than 4 million Australians going online to fill out their census form at the same time. There should have been no surprises here, because the ABS should have considered every possible issue and put plans in place to mitigate the risks.

Respond quickly.

A quick response can help an organisation to salvage a situation when things go wrong. However, in the ABS case, tweeting the obvious, namely that the online service was not available hours after the website had stopped responding, was not helpful. Nor was issuing a media release the following morning, identifying the problem as “DOS attacks”.

What was really needed was for a real person to face the media and explain what had happened, at the time that it was happening, on census night.

Have a clear and consistent message.

Once things do go wrong, it’s important that those responsible respond not just quickly, but with a clear and consistent message. Unfortunately, in response to the problems on census night, there were a series of mixed messages from a variety of spokespeople.

On the one hand, the ABS tweeted on Tuesday night that there had been several “DOS attacks”. On the other hand, the Minister responsible for the Census, Small Business Minister Michael McCormack, said the next morning that this was, “not an attack, nor was it a hack.”

Was it a hack, was it an attack or was the website simply not able to cope with the traffic? In the absence of a clear and consistent message, the Australian public was understandably left confused, annoyed and ultimately, wary of completing the Census online. The end result could be that too few people complete the Census to make it truly meaningful.

Trust is easy to lose and hard to regain.

We know that it can take organisations a long time to build trust with stakeholders. When an issue arises, as happened for the ABS, stakeholders will judge the organisation by both its response and its subsequent actions.

It is already clear that the response of the ABS has been judged by most Australians to be woefully inadequate. Moreover, the subsequent actions of the organisation have not addressed the public’s concerns regarding data security. Television ads continue to run encouraging Australians to complete their census and noting that their data is safe. Follow up letters from the ABS telling people that there is still time to complete the Census merely repeat this message while failing to inform the public if any steps have to been taken to address the issues that caused the problems in the first place.

Regrettably for the ABS, there has been a loss of trust in the organisation that will most likely be difficult to recover.

When it comes to issues management, it pays to plan meticulously, as the 2016 Census demonstrates clearly. Inevitably, issues will occur, but the important thing is how an organisation responds. This is what the public will judge and remember.

Talk to us about issues management.