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The Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey

On 9 August 2017, the Australian Treasurer issued a Direction for the ABS to collect statistical information from participating electors on whether or not the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry. Thus began the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey (AMLPS), a unique undertaking in the ABS’s history, and one which would be seen as a landmark event in Australia’s national story. Statistics published from the survey would directly inform an important decision for Australia, made by the Australian Parliament in December 2017.

While the ABS conducts many statistical collections, including some very large in scale (and some of which include asking people about their views), the AMLPS was different in many ways. It was designed and conducted in fewer than 100 days and comprised a single question asked of just over 16 million eligible Australians.

Overall, 79.5%, or nearly four out of every five eligible people participated in the survey, with consistent distribution across age groups, gender and geography. This is a strong indicator of quality for a voluntary survey. The Australian population’s significant interest in this topic, combined with the statistical collection design and process, made participation easy and ensured quality and integrity. Particular effort was made to ensure the survey was simple and could be completed by all Australians including those travelling or living overseas, those in remote communities, people with disability, and those who spoke a language other than English.

The ABS implemented several new, innovative measures to conduct the AMLPS:

  • A simple survey form containing a single question, supported with straightforward instructions that made it easy for participants to understand and respond
  • Accuracy of response coding, reviewed by external observers and enabled by the very high proportion of participants providing early responses and following the form’s instructions
  • Rigorous survey methods that included quality controls and integrity checks, which were subject to independent review and assurance
  • Strong protections against fraud that included mechanisms to guarantee that only one response was counted for each participant
  • An agile project management approach supported by a dedicated Agile Coach, to enable rapid, coordinated delivery to meet the challenging timeframe.

The AMLPS was delivered in partnership with a host of other agencies. The ABS worked and consulted with almost 30 different Government Departments and Agencies, who provided their expertise, and in some instances their staff, to help deliver an excellent survey. The ABS also consulted many external stakeholders, and extensively shared information with the Yes and No campaign organisers. Ultimately, a national response rate of 79.5 per cent exceeded all expectations for a voluntary survey.

With only 99 days to deliver this high profile and high risk program, the ABS implemented governance structures that supported rapid delivery, rigorous risk management and central coordination. A designated Taskforce was established immediately following the Government’s direction to the ABS to undertake the AMLPS. At its peak, the Taskforce had almost 500 staff (excluding call centre staff).

While many staff on the Taskforce worked long hours in a demanding environment, staff morale remained high throughout the project. End of program reviews showed that staff appreciated the effort invested to create a strong sense of a taskforce community with a positive and open culture, a strong focus on skills rather than hierarchy, regular recognition of achieving milestones, and opportunities to interact regularly with senior leaders.

While the survey was underway, the ABS continued its critical core work. Teams elsewhere in the ABS temporarily released key members to join the Taskforce and experienced their own resource challenges as a result. Their support enabled the work of the AMLPS to be accomplished. It’s a testament to them that the ABS continued to meet its regular schedule of high quality data releases during this time.

External independent auditors to the ABS provided assurance over the integrity and quality of the survey process. They described the ABS as innovative, thorough and comprehensive in its approaches.

Following the survey, the ABS published a report on its conduct, transparently detailing the process, outcomes, and lessons learned. The approach was applauded by the Human Rights Disability Commissioner as leading in accessibility, and commended by the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia. The ABS also recently won the IPAA 2018 Public Sector Innovation Award for Citizen-Centred Innovation for the AMLPS.

An Australian National University Social Research Centre survey in late 2017 found that more Australians rated the result of the AMLPS to be the most significant event that respondents had lived through than any other, ahead of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and moments such as the Sydney Olympics and the arrival of the internet.

The ABS’s decades of experience in national surveys and communication campaigns meant that the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey was delivered on time, professionally, and for two thirds of the allocated budget. The ABS lived up to its purpose – informing Australia’s important decisions.