On Thursday 11 April the Australian Electoral Commission had 780 employees. By Saturday the 18th of May, it needed to meet the needs of approximately 90,000.
Welcome to a day in the life of the AEC, the federal agency that has oversight of federal elections in Australia.
As the agency responsible for conducting federal elections and referendums the AEC exists in a state of perpetual alert; the moment an election is called it swings into action. It normally operates out of 90 premises around Australia and has 780 staff. When an election is announced that scales to more than 7,900 premises and approximately 90,000 staff.
Besides conducting elections the AEC maintains the electoral roll, offers a range of electoral information and education programs and administers political party registrations and financial disclosures. In non–election periods the AEC website receives a moderate load, during the 2019 federal election it handled more than one billion-page views.
Stewart Kerr, Director of Architecture and Modernisation at the AEC acknowledges the synergies between the operating model of the Commission and cloud computing. It provides the AEC with the most effective way to deliver on-demand scale, diverse geographic reach and extreme resilience required of a nationally critical event such as a Federal Election.
Australia utilises paper-based voting, and many of the core platforms operated in the AEC are decades old legacy systems – but it is on a transformation trajectory.
Its 2018-2022 corporate plan outlines its modernisation proposals noting that it needs systems that are robust, nationally consistent and “built for continual evolution through all phases of the electoral cycle – maintaining the electoral roll, election planning, readiness and delivery.”
The core systems modernisation of the AEC has yet to begin; but it has made impressive progress with other transformation initiatives.
Mr Kerr has been with the ICT branch of the AEC for more than 20 years and as he puts it “is passionate about delivering technology solutions that ensure the integrity and successful delivery of federal election for the Australian public” His role is to ensure that the technology decisions made by the AEC align with its strategic direction and deliver against business objectives.
The four key tenets underpinning AEC’s technology strategy are agility, data, security and resilience. “We like to describe ourselves as the perfect organisation for cloud services…all of those key tenets are found in modern cloud platforms and the AEC clearly benefits from them” he says.
The AEC operates in an environment that has zero tolerance for failure. As such the AEC mirrored its mission critical systems that run on election night in the Microsoft Azure cloud to ensure that the real-time feed of elections results to the public and broadcast media partners were not disrupted. Prior to election night the AEC to load tested the entire system to what Mr. Kerr described as “some ridiculously high levels” to demonstrate the resilience of the approach.
After working with Veritec during the 2016 and 2019 elections, the AEC partnered with the organisation again on the proof of concept cloud project, and also engaged support from Microsoft’s Canberra based cloud solution architecture team. “Veritec as always, were fantastic throughout this engagement. They really genuinely worked their guts out to get us a good outcome and facilitated numerous engagements with some of the more high-powered Microsoft teams locally and around the world.
“For us that was an absolute winner on this engagement,” says Kerr.
According to Keiran Mott, CEO, Veritec; “The AEC performs a hugely important role in Australia but few people understand the extraordinary complexity of that role. We have a deep understanding of their ICT because we have a long working relationship.
It’s a privilege to work with the Commission again on this critically important cloud proof of concept that delivered a whole raft of new and valuable services for the voting public.”
The AEC is now working on a self-service platform that will handle processes such as political party nominations and funding disclosures. It is also working on an external portal for the public to post complaints, enquiries and feedback.
The next major initiative for the AEC will be the refresh of its fleet of around 90 legacy systems – some running on equipment harking back to the 1990s.