Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey

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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.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

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.

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