AUSTRALIAN STATISTICIAN'S REVIEW
Like every year for the past century, the ABS has again delivered reliable information that informs Australia’s key decisions.
The operating context for the ABS is an enduring one, recognising the critical importance of the ABS role in informing the decisions of government, business and the community.
We fulfil this role by delivering high quality, timely and relevant statistics, and making the information available in ways that maximise its usefulness while effectively protecting the privacy and confidentiality of individuals, households and businesses.
But consistent with our mission, the ABS needs to enhance what it does and the way it works so it can continue to deliver relevant statistics, now and into the future. If we stand still, we will fall behind in the value we provide to the community.
We need to look for ways to improve measurement of key economic dimensions such as productivity, and make use of new data sources and statistical methodologies.
I’ve spoken before about unleashing the power of data, and that is what we at the ABS want to do. We want to make better use of the data that already exists in government systems, to be able to draw out improved statistical insights and support government decision making.
We want to be able to put less of our effort into collecting data – and reduce the collection burden on households and businesses – and more effort into curating and analysing data; being able to use our statistical expertise to effectively use existing government data and improve the information available for policy development and debate.
Just like in the 1950s and 1960s, when the ABS and other statistical bureaus worldwide embraced the idea of sample surveys, we and other national statistical agencies are now going through another data revolution; this time taking advantage of the opportunities offered by big data from both government and private industry sources.
We are already using retail transaction data from private industry to help us calculate the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and combining census demographics with administrative data from other government agencies has already contributed to improved policy understandings in the areas of migration, mental health, education programs and industry restructuring.
We are also exploring the potential of satellite images and GPS data, and the capacity they have to improve agricultural data and greatly increase our understanding of freight movements and road use in Australia.
The ABS is now in the second year of its ambitious Transformation Agenda, and the next 12 to 18 months will see the ABS building on the foundations put in place so far.
PRODUCING ACCURATE, TIMELY STATISTICS
During the year we received feedback from the Treasury, the Reserve Bank of Australia and a number of economists that the ABS labour force statistics had generally been consistent with other sources of information about developments in the broader economy.
The dynamic nature of our economy and labour market over the past few years have been a challenge; not only for the ABS as the producer of the statistics, but also for some economic commentators who can no longer rely on simplistic approaches to analysis.
As hindsight has shown, it has taken time for the economic narrative underlying our 2015 labour market and national account statistics to be fully understood.
There is good reason why we release some 60 plus spreadsheets of data on the labour force every month, and nearly 40 more quarterly; the stories told by the data are complex and multi-faceted, and no two or three headline figures are ever going to encapsulate it fully.
We will continue to encourage commentators to make greater use of the detailed labour force statistics that the ABS publishes – those on full-time and part-time jobs, industry and regional employment, hours of work, unemployment and underemployment – to better understand the labour market and the economy as a whole.
As the ABS Transformation Agenda continues, we also recognise that we will be working with fragile, ageing statistical systems for a few more years to come; however, in key statistical areas such as national accounts, CPI, labour force and population estimates we have placed, and will continue to place greater attention on identifying and mitigating statistical risks.
OUR TRANSFORMATION IS THE KEY TO UNLEASHING THE POWER OF STATISTICS FOR A BETTER AUSTRALIA
KEY TRANSFORMATION ACHIEVEMENTS TO DATE
TRANSFORMING THE 2016 CENSUS OF POPULATION AND HOUSING
|Trust in the ABS has remained high, 81 per cent of the general public and 100 percent of informed users trust the ABS||ABS Corporate Plan announces the Transformation Agenda||Restructured to prioritise the Census, Transformation, strategic partnerships and communication||Increased number of women in our senior executive - from 24 per cent to 46 per cent||Senior Executive Staff commitment to leadership behaviours of timely action, empowered staff and a 'One ABS' focus||Funding secured thanks to a historic $250 million investment by government|
|Working with stakeholders to further develop the future of official statistics||Forward Work Program documents ABS priorities for 2015-16||Executive Program Board established for Statistical Business Transformation Program, with external members prominent||360 degree feedback provided to all Senior Executive Staff||ABS Changes Network established: bringing together change champions across the ABS||ABS National Data Acquisition Centre opened in Geelong as a new centre of excellence for data capture|
|Established a new Population and Social Statistics Advisory - to complement the Economics Statistics Advisory Group, and a blue sky workshop held by the Australian Statistics Advisory Council||Statement of Expectations and Intent agreed with the Treasurer||Review of policies and legislation underway||Staff secondments to federal, state and territory government departments including with the Treasury, Department of Finance and Prime Minister and Cabinet. We also have seconded officers to each State and territory Government as Strategic Partnership Managers||ABS Engagement Strategy in place to improve and expand external partnerships||Improved security and access management procurement finalised|
|Extensive consultation with key stakeholders such as the Treasury, the Reserve Bank of Australia, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Departments of Environment; Social Services; Health; Industry, Innovation and Science; and Education and training||Whole of Government public data management and data integration initiatives, including the Multi-agency Data Integration Project, the Linked Employer-Employee Dataset and Expanded Analytical Business Longitudinal Data Analysis Environment (previously known as the Expanded Analytical Business Longitudinal Database)||Statistical risk management planning for main economic indicators and estimated resident population||Positive results in the 2015 State of the Service Census||Implementing new and improved ways of working with a focus on high performance||Rollout of new and more flexible (NextGen) desktop environment completed, enhancing security while increased flexibility|
|93% of key stakeholders feel their relationship with the ABS has improved||Submission to the Productivity Commission's inquiry into Data Availability and Use||New Statistical Strategy Committee established to provide single oversight of ABS statistical programs||ABS staff member Joseph Chien awarded a 2016 Sir Roland Wilson Scholarship||Renewed focus on improving knowledge management||Five of our nine offices have migrated to activity based working, giving greater access to flexible working arrangements and reducing capital investment in office facilities|
|ABS DataLab trial generated an increase in registered users of microdata integration products, up 46% compared to 2014-15||Decrease in the burden on businesses and households, including the phasing out of paper forms for business surveys over the next four years||ABS Enterprise Agreement 2016 endorsed by staff||Youmpla Network to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff||Procurement for the ABS enterprise data management environment was underway|
|96% of print articles cited ABS statistics without quality concerns|
This past year has been one of gearing up for the 2016 Census, held on August 9.
This is not only the largest single statistical collection undertaken by the ABS but the largest peace time logistical exercise regularly conducted in Australia. Over the last few years we have engaged with community groups, multicultural groups, all levels of government and other stakeholders to build awareness, understanding and partnerships to ensure Australia receives high quality data from the 2016 Census.
The 2016 Census will cost around $470 million, and our ‘digital first’ approach – where we expected two-thirds of all households to complete the Census online – was designed to save taxpayers an estimated $100 million in printing and field collection costs.
Although online completion was possible in both 2011 and 2006, it was not strongly emphasised; even so, a third of the population completed their 2011 Census online.
We see online completion as both less intrusive for many households and, more importantly, a move that offers improved security of personal data.
This has been the first time we’ve led the Census communication campaign with a digital push; and we were pleased with responses; we had already received over 750,000 electronic returns back before Census night.
But on Census night itself, the site had to be taken offline as a precautionary measure due to a combination of circumstances, and access was not restored to the public until we could be sure of the safety of both the process and the information collected.
Despite this setback, the added media attention greatly increased awareness of the Census and barely two weeks later we had exceeded our response expectations. At the time this Annual Report went to print, 23 September 2016, I am pleased to report that 8.3 million households submitted their forms either on paper or online.
The 2016–17 Annual Report will include a more detailed report of the 2016 Census process and results.
TRANSFORMING THE ABS
The ABS continues to transform what it does and how it works, and 2015–16 has been the first full year of our Transformation Agenda.
Importantly, we have pursued ambitious and comprehensive changes. At the same time we delivered around 500 quality, timely statistical releases over the year as well as preparing for the 2016 Census. We also increased our statistical risk mitigation for our key statistics to ensure that we continue to produce quality and timely information during our transformation.
The transformation of the ABS will enable us to deliver greater value both in terms of increased statistical information and value for money.
Despite an ageing statistical infrastructure well identified by my predecessor, the ABS I joined almost two years ago had many positive features, largely thanks to a highly professional and committed workforce. This enables the ABS able to respond to the demands placed upon it and staff who are acutely aware of the importance of what the ABS does.
These people carry the knowledge that will help the ABS retain what works, and they have essential skills as we continue to respond to the evolving information needs of the nation. But the ABS also needed a number of other skills and expertise that we have been able to recruit.
We now have a better balanced workforce; both long serving, experienced staff as well as new recruits with experience from outside the ABS, including over 130 graduates at the start of 2016.
I have been impressed by the improvements I have seen over a relatively short time, and particularly pleasing is that the ABS is working more collaboratively and constructively, drawing upon the skills and perspectives we have across the organisation, as well as working more with our partner agencies and key stakeholders.
But the greatest gains from our Transformation Agenda are still to come, as we start implementing new systems and new information architecture to support our vision of a better statistical system. Given the scale of the infrastructure rebuild required, this will be several years away.
The ABS remains a complex business operation, considering the depth and breadth of our statistical program across economic, industry, social and environmental dimensions and, the diverse data capture arrangements we use, with multi-site operations allowing our national business to be run from nine locations.
THE VALUE OF STATISTICS
One aspect that might surprise the community is the limited range of information that is currently available to governments, business and the community when it comes to considering the major policy issues facing our society.
In many of these cases the lack of information means it is all too easy for debate to be led and shaped without any real reference to the facts of the matter, and for decision makers (governments and parliaments) to be making choices in an information fog.
This is an area where the ABS must step up and deliver greater public value to governments and the community by offering an improved range of statistics – providing a real and far-reaching evidence base for government decision making and policy assessment, and in a way that does not compromise privacy.
I would expect that providing improved statistical evidence to government, Parliaments, businesses and the community is exactly what the community expects of the ABS, and why we have organisations such as the ABS.
In the context of the fiscal challenges we face as a nation, the ABS is able to increase the scope of its output through the better use of existing Census, survey information and government administrative data at minimal additional cost.
What the ABS believes it should do is nothing new or novel; we already do some of this activity and see opportunities to do more for Australians. We are simply trying to catch up to statistical agency peers such as Canada and New Zealand, who have been undertaking this safe data integration for many years, and with community support.
I don’t believe that citizens of Canada and New Zealand value their privacy any less than Australians do, yet they were able to see the value and utility that the improved use of existing information provides and they understood the privacy preserving statistical mechanisms used by their trusted national statistical offices in these processes.
Privacy is a cornerstone of any statistical agency, and the ABS is no exception – privacy remains our number one priority and a requirement of our legislation. It is a core value of the ABS, myself, my senior team and the entire workforce.
The ABS has been pursuing data integration since at least the early 2000s, and our capability and commitment to it has been enhanced over past years as we have been able to learn from the developments in this field being made by other national statistical agencies.
Data integration projects using data from the last two Censuses, and in particular 2011 Census data have already led to improvements in mental health support, understanding educational outcomes, improved estimates of Indigenous life expectancy and demonstrating the contribution of migrants to Australia. The modest scale of activity by the ABS to date has produced modest benefits to the community.
To provide some illustrations of the sorts of statistical insights that the ABS will be able to deliver in the future, including through safe, more effective use of Census information, we are expecting to provide much better statistical information on:
- the nature, extent and outcomes for employees and families from the industrial changes that are taking place in the economy
- the changes taking place in communities, especially as our population ages and we
- experience further changes in patterns of work, population mobility and family formation
- the education and health interventions that are more likely to provide improved outcomes
- the outcomes – both positive and negative – achieved for citizens, families and the community as a whole from government programs and services.
Quite simply, this data integration is the future for all statistical agencies – we need to leverage big data to provide the evidence to better inform governments, parliaments and the community. .
While the value of the ABS and the statistics it produces is indisputable, we do have a finite budget, through our appropriation and additional user funding, yet we are still able to deliver information that is used extensively in decision making by governments, business, households and the community.
On the economic side, ABS data is used every day to guide the operations of government – from informing the Reserve Bank’s interest rate decisions, to assisting the Treasury’s understandings of policy impacts and outcomes, as well as supplying much of the core information for fiscal settings and budget forecasts and, financial distributions from the Commonwealth to the states and territories. Business investment decisions are also based on accurate, timely and relevant data from the ABS.
On the social side of the ABS work program, our demographic data is key to the distribution of electorates, while surveys such as the Australian Health Survey help develop and target policies and programs to address disadvantage and disability, improve health and social outcomes, and generally improve everyday life in Australia.
As a public institution, we are focused on delivering public value to the taxpayers who fund our activities and our many key stakeholders. Even though we have a strong sense that we already deliver public value far in excess of the cost of our services, we are seeking to further increase the public value of what we do, and provide information that will help improve the wellbeing of Australians.
I would like to close by again thanking the skilled staff of the ABS for their dedication and perseverance while we undertake change in the ABS; I would like to thank the Australian community for their ongoing support and trust that we will continue to respect their privacy and confidentiality.
It’s important to remember that no government agency works in a vacuum; the ABS works with many other national organisations as they supply us with data critical to our statistical collections; we also have the ongoing support of the state and territory Registrars, who supply us with information on Australia’s births, deaths and marriages, the varied state and territory agencies that supply us with the financial information critical for the compilation of the national accounts and other economic collections, and information to compile key social indicators of crime, justice and early childhood education.
We also have ongoing partnerships with agencies such as the Department of Immigration and Border Control, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of Social Services and the Department of Health who help us take statistics in Australia to a new level of insight and relevance.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the support from our recently appointed Minister, the Hon Michael McCormack MP. I would also like to thank our previous Ministers, the Hon Alex Hawke MP and the Hon Kelly O’Dwyer MP for their support during 2015–16.
David W. Kalisch