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Wednesday, 22 May 2019 11:27

ABS looks abroad for Census work. Locals ain't good enough

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ABS looks abroad for Census work. Locals ain't good enough Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay

One can't exactly put a name to it, but something akin to cultural cringe must have led the Australian Bureau of Statistics to avoid picking Australian companies to run the 2021 Census.

Exactly why this revulsion for one's own exists is unclear, but the ABS opted for Amazon Web Services (American), PwC Consulting (UK) and Adecco (Switzerland) to look after the headcount.

Memories of the 2016 Census haven't yet quite gone away, with IBM leading the charge and the census website hitting the skids at 7.30 on the night of 9 August, allegedly due to a distributed denial of service that has never been proven to this day.

After the whole mess was over, IBM had to pay compensation to the government. There were messy scenes in court, with Nextgen Networks and Vocus Communications flinging accusations ("you are to blame!" "No. it's your fault.") at each other and at Big Blue.

The ABS doesn't appear to have learnt from that episode. It still hires cut-price vendors.

AWS is one of six providers that is certified as a Protected cloud provider by the Australian Signals Directorate, which means it can host top-secret government data.

But there are three Australian companies among those six; could not one of them have been picked instead? Vault (formerly Vault Systems), Spliced Tech and Macquarie Government have been certified to the Protected level and went through much tougher tests before being granted the tick of approval.

The AWS service that is certified is the same as the commercial cloud service that is offered to every entity on the face of the earth.

In the US, the AWS cloud service offered to the government has to be air-gapped, have top-notch encryption and controlled metadata, and only on-shore security-cleared personnel can operate the facility.

But for the plebs in Australia, an inferior product is fine. In fact, it's so good that the ABS has no hesitation in picking it over three Australian firms who have also have the scale to offer the same or better service.

As to PwC and Adecco - are there no Australian equivalents? Asking the Australian Information Industry Association yielded no answer. People, it would appear, are afraid to say anything against a government decision. Perhaps they fear being overlooked in the next round of contracts - much smaller ones, for sure.

PwC will build and run the Census website. And nobody in Australia can do that? Adecco will provide field staff for the Census. Can an Australia company to do this job not be found?

This business of kow-towing to the Americans was set in train by the former Prime Minister John Howard who, during his 11 years in office, gave that country the upper hand in the energy, rural industry, culture, defence and blood supply sectors, excluding local players. Why he even changed the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to favour the Americans. [You can read all about it in a brilliant book titled National Insecurity, written by three of Australia's best academics.]

With the Coalition Government said to be in a rush to push services to the cloud, and the cheaper options — not necessarily the most secure — being American, it looks like local players will not even get the crumbs.

A classic example of this was witnessed last year, when Vault, which was supposed to be hosting a trial of GovPass, was unceremoniously pushed out.

To date, the Digital Transformation Agency is mum on who will be the cloud host for the trial — which is to be run by the Australian Taxation Office and the Department of Human Services — but given that the DTA itself has engaged the services of Microsoft, it seems very likely that more Australian dollars are already flowing in the direction of Redmond.

But when a country has gone to the extent of specifying that documents submitted for the purpose of contesting its elections have to be in a Microsoft-compatible format, then this certainly would not come as a surprise. Bowing and scraping appears to have become an art form Down Under.

There's one additional benefit to hiring local companies – no matter what they charge, they will pay their fair share of tax.

Wikipedia defines cultural cringe as "an internalised inferiority complex that causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries".

Yes, that's the one. The ABS has got it in spades.

Update: In response to this article, the ABS has requested that the following statement be added:

"The recent appointment of suppliers to provide digital services and recruit temporary field staff for the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2021 Census followed a rigorous and stringent open tender process that adhered to Commonwealth Procurement guidelines, including ensuring value for money for Australian taxpayers.

"In line with Commonwealth Procurement rules, the ABS treats all potential suppliers to government equitably and does not discriminate."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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