Putting the customer first: Communication lessons from the 2016 Census

Putting the customer first: Communication lessons from the 2016 Census

For brands who are more than likely selling a particular product or service, putting customer service at the centre of their communications approach is really a no-brainer.

Consumers who feel good about what they are consuming and the experience of their consumption are likely to be return visitors.

In other words, a positive customer experience equals customer loyalty. Makes sense, right?

For the public sector, and particularly government communicators, this logic often doesn’t seem to translate.

As crude as it might seem, the Australian Government is in the business of providing services to the Australian people. Service provision is the commodity, and the taxpayer is the customer.

At the centre of our communications efforts needs to be instilling in our audience that which we ourselves value as customers when we visit shops or interact with brands: our time being respected, our money being respected, and our voice being respected.

Australian Census 2016 was a recent example of when government communications could have put customer experience first, and didn’t. Let’s explore what happened.

What went wrong:

In terms of its communications, the ABS fell down in two key areas when it came to communicating with stakeholders (ie, every single person in Australia on August 9 2016) about the 2016 Census. It fell short in its explanation of notable changes to the process ahead of the 9th August. Then, on census night itself, the ABS failed in its communications with citizens when it became clear that things weren’t going to plan.


The 2016 Census differed from previous iterations (beyond its digital-first orientation) in that the ABS decided to retain identifiable information (ie, names and addresses) supplied as part of the Census for four years as opposed to 18 months. Despite announcing this intention in November 2015, there appeared to be no underpinning communications approach to explain in a clear and engaging way why this adjustment was being made, and indeed how it would affect Australians.

The net result was that public concern around privacy, security, coercion and identification of individuals and minority populations was allowed to take hold, and peak when information about the logistical completion of the Census should have been dominating the conversation.

In this instance, failing to adopt a customer-first approach by not adequately responding to these concerns served to not only aggravate the public, but also opened up the quality of data obtained by the census itself to compromise; as members of the public suggested they would not provide accurate information.

“It’s fine! Everything is fine! Totally fine!”

The 2016 Census went very wrong, let’s not make any bones about that. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong on Census night, did.

The next misstep in the ABS’ communication with the Australian public however was the pretence that everything was completely fine, despite a number of Denial of Service attacks throughout the day and then a massive, crippling one just as the majority of Australian households were finishing up their dinner and logging on to complete the online form.

Despite knowing that a huge Denial of Service attack had rendered the Census website inaccessible by just after 7:30pm, it wasn’t until almost 11pm that the ABS finally admitted defeat and told users that they would be unable to complete the Census that night. In the interim, the ABS Twitter account fired off just under 80 tweets imploring the public to head to the website, despite clearly knowing that the website has been shut down.

Compounded by the fact the Census communications campaign had also not adequately addressed confusion and concerns that not completing the online form on Census night would result in a fine, many Australians stayed up later than they might have wanted to frustratingly attempting to access the website.

Few things are likely to frustrate a customer like making them stay up past their bedtime will.

So, what can government communicators can learn from #CensusFail?

  1. Respect your stakeholders’ concerns: The gift of the wealth of digital platforms at our disposal means that if we choose to listen, we can find out what our audience is worried about. The even greater gift is that we have the capacity to directly engage with them and use our communications approach to allay these concerns. Content specifically targeted at addressing common questions and worries is proactive and demonstrates that the stakeholder is central to your approach.
  1. Respect your stakeholders’ time: Just as you don’t like being made to wait an extraordinarily long time to be served in a retail environment, neither do citizens and stakeholders like being made to wait an unnecessary amount of time to complete their ‘civic duty’. By methodically and systematically ensuring that your stakeholders are well informed about the process that they are being asked to engage in, you are setting it up so that the risk of wasting their time is minimal.
  1. Respect your stakeholders’ intelligence: This one is simple. Just be honest and transparent. Do not attempt to mislead or confuse them because the facts may not be popular. To be deliberately unclear in your communications approach could lead to major reputational damage.

Had the ABS put their stakeholders front and centre of their communications approach for the 2016 Census by creating content that was reflective of the public’s needs and concerns, and thinking of ways to make Australians feel like valuable contributors to the process, they would have given themselves the opportunity create ambassadors for the ABS and the new digital-first approach to the Census.

Alas, that will have to wait another five years.

What were your main learnings from the 2016 Census? Share them with us in the comments.

Lydia holds a Bachelor of History from the University of Sussex as well as a Masters in History (Genocide Studies) from the University of Amsterdam. Her communications experience includes working in the not-for-profit, public and now private sectors. Fortunately, given her chosen career path, writing is her absolute favourite activity (especially when flanked by a coffee and a dog).

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