Many years of Australian debate and public division around same sex marriage culminated in a single, nation-wide postal survey. The Australian Bureau of Statistics was given only 99 days to prepare, conduct and release the results of a survey of Australia’s 16 million enrolled voters. An amazing 80% of citizens participated in this voluntary survey, enabled by innovative project management and customer-centric service delivery. The project was delivered for 2/3 of its budget, a $40m saving.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is Australia's national statistical agency, providing trusted official statistics on a wide range of economic, social, population and environmental matters of importance to Australia. Its purpose is to inform important decisions.
On 9 August 2017, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull directed the ABS to conduct a national survey on whether same sex marriage should be legislated in Australia. The Australia Marriage Law Postal Survey (AMLPS) would be a unique undertaking for Australia and the ABS. The Prime Minister provided the ABS only 99 days to deliver.
While the ABS conduct many statistical collections, including some very large in scale, the AMLPS’ uniqueness and timeframe made it a challenging and high-risk undertaking. The AMLPS was to be the largest mail out in Australian history, the largest survey in the ABS’ history and would require new, innovative approaches.
The ABS’ success was not related to how Australians responded to the survey, but rather that the AMLPS was conducted in a way that allowed all eligible people to have a say, and that the survey was conducted in a way that built public confidence and trust in the result no matter what it was.
The participation rate of 79.5 per cent was outstanding and exceeded expectations – 30 per cent higher than the participation rate for the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage (60.5%) and over 10 per cent above the participation rate for the Brexit referendum (72.2%).
This participation rate could not have been achieved without broad community support and trust. The ABS needed to work with others to both build and maintain this trust.
The ABS needed to put strategies in place to allow all eligible Australians to participate, including those that: were overseas; were experiencing homelessness; had a disability; live in remote locations; had limited or no English; lived in residential aged care; had not previously enrolled to vote or had not updated their electoral details; or were in prison.
This high participation rate was achieved through statistical collection design and processes which made participation easy whilst ensuring quality and integrity, in particular:
+ A simple survey form containing a single question, supported with straightforward instructions that made it easy for participants to understand and respond.
+ An online form and an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) phone line to support participation of those who could not access the postal system.
+ The very high proportion of participants complying with the form’s instructions, enabling accurate coding of responses (with accuracy reviewed by external observers).
+ Rigorous survey methods that included quality controls and integrity checks which were subject to independent review and assurance.
The survey design needed to be supported by a strong, clear communication campaign and by processes to deliver a smooth public experience and maintain public trust. The ABS:
+ engaged with community organisations to design and deliver a citizen-centric survey, with this co-design ensuring an inclusive approach and stakeholder buy-in
+ partnered with other government agencies with existing service delivery systems particularly for phone enquiries, and provide remote support
+ engaged with over 200 Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and provided support through community visits, establishing 27 temporary regional locations and providing access to over 600 existing government facilities
+ coupled an innovative use of agile methodology with a rigorous and disciplined approach to risk management, assurance and fraud control
+ used new and existing research aimed at eliciting a behavioural response to inform design decisions and adopted behavioural economics principles in a way never previously applied by the ABS
+ applied fraud protection measures for the integrity of the mail forms, including processes for validating requests for new forms, cancelling barcodes that were reported as missing or stolen, not counting secondary returns from any person, quality assuring processes and identifying suspicious behaviour
+ automated online requests using the Government Document Verification Service. This meant that 94 per cent of online requests (126,000 out of 134,000) for a paper form or secure access code were processed without needing any intervention by staff. This provided a quicker, better 24-hour service to Australians at less cost
The Australian Statistician delivered the results of the survey on 15 November 2017, and consequently legislation was passed in Australian Parliament on 7 December 2017 to allow same sex couples to marry. The project was delivered for 2/3 of its budget, a $40 million saving.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The short time-frame and the uniqueness of the challenge required innovation in all aspects of this project.
The ABS took an innovative citizen-centric approach to maximise the inclusiveness, easiness and responsiveness of the citizen experience. This included:
the use of behavioural economics to encourage a quick and clear survey response
tailored approaches to support participation by everyone in the community including online forms, telephone responses and temporary shopfronts
service automation to provide 24 x 7 customer support and fast response
specific focus on building and maintaining public trust.
The ABS embraced agile methodologies to coordinate and accelerate work on the survey within the ABS and across government and private sector partners. Twice daily ‘stand ups’ and task visualisation using ‘Kanbans’ were essential to project success.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The majority (62%) of Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey (AMLPS) respondents wanted the law to be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry. As a result, same-sex marriage has been legal in Australia since 9 December 2017, providing a clear conclusion to many years of divisive public debate.
The ABS’ success has been recognised in national Australian innovation and public sector awards. The ABS has published a full report on the survey to share lessons learnt.
The ABS is adopting the innovations from the AMLPS in other business areas, including:
Embedding behavioural economics in other ABS surveys and corporate operations.
Adopting agile project management techniques and methodology across the agency to support more efficient, effective project delivery
Embracing user centred design in the preparation for the 2021 Australian Census
Better leveraging external partnerships and external engagement to complement internal ABS skills and knowledge.
Collaborations & Partnerships
This project represented a ‘step change’ for the ABS in relation to collaboration and partnerships. The ABS had six staff seconded from other Government departments and engaged services from more than 20 government agencies.
Government services services were critical to support the use of the Australian Electoral Roll, existing government call centres and rural networks, cyber-security and legal expertise.
Also for the first time, the ABS outsourced the receipt and scanning of survey forms.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
All Australians registered to vote were provided with an opportunity to participate in the survey, including those Australians living or travelling in other countries, in remote indigenous communities, aged care facilities, people with disabilities and those experiencing homelessness.
The ABS worked with community representatives to co-design the best ways to connect with communities to allow their survey to be lodged as simply as possible.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The AMLPS generated great results and positive outcomes in many areas:
The participation rate of 79.5% far exceeded expectations.
99.84% of returned surveys provided a clear response, demonstrating that the ABS had implemented a very sound process for people to express their views in unambiguous terms.
94% of citizen requests for assistance or information were automatically processed with no clerical intervention, which supported all enquiries being responded to in under 24 hours and average call centre wait times of only 12 seconds.
The survey was delivered for only 2/3 of its budget, delivering a public saving of over $40 million.
The Australian Marriage Law was changed less than a month after the survey, providing evidence of the community trust in the results.
The implementation of the AMLPS resulted in increased adoption of agile methodologies, behavioural economics and user centred design which is improving ABS’ ongoing operations.
Challenges and Failures
The scale and timeframe for the AMLPS, along with the sensitivity of the topic, presented large challenges. Conducting a new survey would typically take eighteen months, however in this survey there was only 99 days available.
The operational logistics were immense including:
Producing and delivering 64 million forms, envelopes and letters in weeks
36 hours to launch a media and communication campaign
four days to establish a call centre
The AMLPS topic was polarising and emotive resulting in strong media and community interest in an extremely politicised and strongly debated issue. During the early weeks of preparation, the survey faced a High Court challenge, a Senate Inquiry and frequent media and Freedom of Information requests. The ABS responded by:
publishing detailed material on plans for the survey to increase transparency and reduce concern; and
engaging an audit firm and external experts to provide independent assurance over ABS processes and publish findings.
Conditions for Success
The ABS positioned the survey for success by providing overall strong leadership, but quickly looking to source support and expertise from a wide range of other government organisations, companies and individuals to complement the agency.
The ABS was successful by:
Establishing a Taskforce with appropriate authority and the resources to deliver
Adopting appropriate agile methodologies to ensure quick decisions could be made by the best person
Creating a culture of accountability and performance to get things done
Contracting experts for risk, IT design, fraud prevention and assurance
Bringing in experts in procurement, logistics, law, privacy and technology to ensure decisions were made in a timely and well-informed manner
Taking a user-centred approach to design (in this case citizens who would completed the survey)
Undertaking co-design with community groups to improve strategies to support survey participation.
Whilst this survey posed unique challenges that required novel solutions, these solutions are transferrable to other projects.
The ABS documented and published how the survey was conducted in order to promote replication of approaches and has been active in sharing lessons with other agencies through external presentations.
The Australian Electoral Commission was a close partner to the ABS during the survey and observed first hand a number of the methods used. They are looking at adopting agile methodology into their organisation, as well as considering the approach to citizen service delivery.
Australia’s Department of Human Services, one of Australia’s largest government agency who administer welfare payments for millions of Australians, are looking at how they can adopt automation in service channels based on approaches used by the ABS during this survey.
The ABS is adopting lessons learnt in both ongoing business operations and in preparation for the 2021 Australian Census.
In times of declining public trust in developed nations across the world, the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey achieved levels of trust at 90%. This high level of public trust was central to the resolution of years of public debate through the change of Australian marriage law to allow same sex couples to marry.
The ABS’ approach to building and maintaining public trust could be replicated elsewhere and was based around:
building trust at an individual level by delivering easy, inclusive and responsive citizen service, so that everyone experienced a well organised survey
diffusing issues and concerns from both traditional and social media through engaging independent experts that had the opportunity to review the survey’s design and internal processes to make informed public statements on the approach
focussed resources on risk and issue identification and management to ensure that unexpected incidents were resolved quickly.
Working with pace and agility
Governments around the world are expected to work at an ever increasing pace, often with decreasing resources and increasing service complexity.
The ABS adopted Agile methodology across this project to support
coordination of multiple streams of work being conducted in parallel through twice daily short stand up meetings and work visualisation using Kanban boards
focus through stand up meetings and Kanban on work completion, and work barriers, in order to accelerate delivery
use of shorter and less formal communications to Senior Executive to reduce time spent on administration rather than project delivery
Senior Executive being deeply immersed in project context through stand ups, allowing fast decisions by the Executive and clear delegation to teams to make decisions using their expertise
high levels of motivation and work satisfaction through clear understanding of the value of each person’s contribution and building a very strong team connection right across the program.
The Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey has been recognised in Australia as a winner of the prestigious 2018 Australian Public Service Innovation Awards (https://www.act.ipaa.org.au/innovation-winners-18) and is a finalist (winner still to be announced) for the Australian Prime Minister’s Awards for Public Sector Management Excellence.
The delivery of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey was the responsibility of, and driven by, the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The success of the survey was the result of the collaboration and partnerships with both government, private and community organisations.
The ABS would like to particularly recognise the contribution of the Australian Electoral Commission, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Finance, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Treasury, Australia Post, FujiXerox and Protiviti.
- Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways
2 November 2017