PODCAST: a wombat, post-it notes and a 16 million person survey

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Australia’s postal survey into marriage equality was historic on many fronts but beyond the resounding result it was also a staggering achievement in the fast, accurate delivery of an actual vote - with all the practical mountains that entailed.

Lessons learnt from the 2016 Census helped the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) deliver the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey results in just 99 days, Taskforce Lead Jonathan Palmer says.

"In the first few weeks it was a 24/7 operation… we needed twice-daily meetings to drive the tempo and ensure everything was moving.” - Jonathan Palmer

“We learnt a lot about how to effectively manage risks, how to communicate with the public and the need to really place the customer at the centre of all our decision making,” he told bluenotes on podcast from the ABS’s office in Canberra.

On 9 August 2017, Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison directed the ABS to request statistical information from all Australians on whether or not the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry.

What followed was a 99 day 'sprint' – to use the favoured terminology - to the finish line for the taskforce who worked day and night to send out, receive and collate responses from the public. Key to the achievement was the use of agile methodologies to keep track of up to 15 concurrent streams of activity.

Such methodologies, originating in the rapid delivery of tech products, are becoming more widespread in the corporate world and at ANZ underpin the 'New Ways of Working' project in the bank.

The Marriage Equality survey returned a ‘yes’ vote of 61.6 per cent and marriage equality is now legal in Australia.

“I had a keen interest in the application of agile methods in the ABS and when I took on the taskforce it seemed to me to be a no brainer that we ought to operate along an agile methodology,” Palmer said.

“There was a need to establish a very high tempo; a rhythm that was fast enough for very quick delivery; a focus on minimum viable product; the need to deliver things in some cases incrementally; the need to make rapid decisions.

“We didn't have to force anyone to join the team, people were very excited about it,” he said.


The ABS teamed up with other agencies including the Australian Electoral Commission, the Department of Finance and attorney generals to ensure excellent support for the taskforce.

In the first few weeks it was a 24-7 operation and the taskforce of over 50 people got together twice a day for stand-up meetings to keep track of what had been achieved either that day or overnight and to discuss what they planned to achieve between then and the next meeting.

“We had visual props [and] we had a Kanban board which was really key. It started off being pretty crude and got more sophisticated and larger as it went on,” Palmer said.

“We had hundreds and hundreds of post-it notes showing what was in progress and what was in the backlog.”

Despite the government being non-negotiable on some aspects of the survey (notably the timeframe and the question being asked) the ABS still had a lot of autonomy with how they executed the request.

“A key enabler of our rapid progress was the very close engagement of the leadership team – they were there on the spot to help with the decision making process. There was a very flat structure for this task force,” Palmer said.

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Taskforce Lead Jonathan Palmer

A little humour

Through long hours and tight timeframe, Palmer said members of the taskforce enjoyed their time on the project and even managed to complete their duties with a little humour.

“There was something beautiful about the project in that people really enjoyed it and they felt it was a privilege to work on it," he said. "We had a quirky team mascot which was a wombat."

"The wombat is actually faster than Usain Bolt over a short distance. So the wombat represented speed and the ability to plough through large barriers."

Staff wellbeing was a top priority.

“At one point everyone was getting pretty frayed around the edges in terms of the energy that they put into it," Palmer said. "We did a lot of work around the wellbeing of staff - checking that they're okay and encouraging them to look after each other. They didn't need much encouragement on that front, though, because they naturally helped each other.

“Like all large organisations, we recognised that there were a lot of people who found the topic personally confronting and difficult. So we did a lot of communication across the whole organisation about the employee’s support arrangements that we have in place.”

To ensure the integrity of the survey staff on the taskforce signed a personal undertaking to behave in an impartial and objective way so that the Australian public could have complete confidence in the execution of the survey.

“That was an added challenge for some people on the taskforce because while they might have had strong personal views they really couldn't bring that into the program," Palmer said. "And everyone, I think, honoured those undertakings extremely well.”

He also touched on what the taskforce learnt from the survey that will be applied to the 2021 Census. Listen to the podcast above to find out more.

Jemma Wight is bluenotes’ production editor.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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