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Australian Statistician, Brian Pink
The ABS has continued to deliver a range of significant achievements over the past 12 months, in what have been quite challenging circumstances. The ABS continues to face a rapidly changing external environment. The new Australian Government has changed a range of policy priorities, changed the focus of its interactions with the state and territory governments, and is seeking input into its longer-term strategies at events such as the 2020 summit. As a result, the ABS must continue to work hard to be relevant and involved, to ensure it remains a key contributor of statistical information in this changing environment.
I am pleased to report the ABS remains well placed to continue meeting the mission we have set—assisting and encouraging informed decision making, research and discussion within governments and the community, by leading a high quality, objective and responsive national statistical service. We have some more challenges ahead, which I refer to later in my report, but I am confident that the team and the infrastructure I have around me, along with the support we receive from government and the community, will see us achieve our goals over the short and longer term.
ABS ACTIVITIES IN 2007–08
Following the organisational restructure, which came into effect in July 2007, the ABS has been carrying out some consequential activities, including a project focusing on re-aligning the roles and responsibilities for the executive team, and a review of the corporate governance arrangements. The ABS has also reviewed its planning and budgeting activities, to ensure that we are well placed to carry out our legislated role and can anticipate and respond effectively to future opportunities and risks.
Under the renewed approach to planning and budgeting, decision making about the forward work program is more closely aligned to the ABS budget. The cycle has been extended from three to four years, so that we have a better information base for the fourth year government appropriation. Corporate and resource centre business plans are being developed, with both a strategic and operational focus. The new process also embeds the risk management strategy into the planning and budgeting processes, and is looking at systems integration issues.
I will take this opportunity to pick out a few 2007–08 highlights now.
OUTPUTS FROM THE 2006 CENSUS OF POPULATION AND HOUSING
The second release of the 2006 Census occurred on 25 October 2007, with data on labour force, hours worked, industry, occupation, journey to work, education and internal migration included in the release. The release generated substantial demand on the ABS website. Overall, the 2006 Census was highly successful and produced quality data, which has been very well received.
Coverage of the 2006 Census results by the media was extensive, and included a range of information, such as where we live, our age and how much we are paid.
In March 2008, the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, the Hon Chris Bowen MP, and I launched the 2006 Census Social Atlas Series at Parliament House in Canberra. The Social Atlas Series contains a common set of maps for each capital city covering population, ethnicity, education, families, income, labour force and dwellings. A brief commentary explaining the main features and characteristics also accompanies each map.
The Community Profile Series was released in 2007–08, containing six separate profiles aimed at providing key census characteristics relating to persons, families and dwellings and covering most topics on the census form. The profiles are excellent tools for researching, planning and analysing small and large geographic areas. They enable comparisons to be made between different geographic areas.
Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) were released in March 2008. SEIFA is a product developed especially for those interested in the assessment of the welfare of Australian communities. The ABS has developed four indexes to allow ranking of regions/areas, providing a method of determining the level of social and economic wellbeing in each region. Each of the four indexes summarises different aspects of the socio-economic conditions of people living in an area; and each is based upon a different set of social and economic information from the 2006 Census. The indexes provide more general measures of socio-economic status than by measuring, for example, income or unemployment alone.
While not a highlight, I will mention that, following the 2006 Census, 4,955 Notices of Direction (NOD) were issued to householders who did not complete a census form. I am pleased to say that nearly 4,000 householders returned the forms as a result of being issued with a NOD. I forwarded 278 briefs to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) with the CDPP commencing prosecution on 232 householders. Of these, 116 cases proceeded to court, with five cases yet to be finalised and four found not guilty. Of the cases that did not proceed to court, most were withdrawn due to difficulty locating the defendant or serving documents.
On 13 September 2007, I handed over the Census Time Capsule to the Director-General of the National Archives of Australia (NAA). The NAA are now custodians of the information. A total of 11,256,886 people, or more than half the people recorded in last year’s Census of Population and Housing, chose to have their name identified census information stored for 99 years.
The Australian Statistician, Brian Pink, hands over the Census Time Capsule to the Director-General of the National Archives of Australia, Ross Gibbs.
I am also pleased to report that the Census Data Enhancement project is proceeding in line with the statement of intention we published and you will find more information on 2007–08 progress in Chapter 13, Extended analysis of statistics. This project is an important development for the ABS, as we enhance the value of data collected, making it a more valuable asset for governments and the community.
PROGRESS ON THE NATIONAL STATISTICAL SYSTEM
On 8 October 2007, the ABS unveiled the Children and Youth Statistical Portal, an online service that improves access to statistical information about Australia’s children. The Children and Youth Statistical Portal is both a source of information and a collaborative forum for researchers. Other agencies contributing to the portal include Medicare, the Australian Drug Foundation, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, Institute of Criminology, the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. The portal is a pilot project for the National Data Network (NDN), an online research and collaboration tool developed by an ABS led consortium of Australian government agencies, state bodies and research organisations. The NDN is to improve the accessibility and use of all Australian statistics. The concept of the Children and Youth Statistical Portal is just one of a number of similar, topic based portals planned under the NDN.
I also want to highlight another National Statistical System development, the Victorian Child and Adolescent Monitoring System (VCAMS). This is an NDN pilot study collaboration with the Victorian Government. The ABS has been working with the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in a collaborative project, to test the suitability and viability of the NDN. The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development hosts VCAMS, which draws together information in relation to early childhood development and youth, from across the Victorian Government. VCAMS is intended to underpin planning for improvement at a program, local government and statewide level, in relation to monitoring and reporting on the safety, health, development, learning and wellbeing of children and young people in Victoria. A small pilot study of 15 of the 150 VCAMS indicators, drawn from across various government agencies, was undertaken earlier in 2008. I am pleased to report that the peak governing body for the VCAMS project (Departmental Secretaries) recently met to consider the findings from the pilot study and gave in principle support for the use of the NDN, and endorsed continued work with the ABS. Discussions to take this project to the next phase are underway. This is an important test for the NDN and the National Statistical System, and I am closely monitoring progress on this project.
OTHER LAUNCHES AND CELEBRATIONS
The Statistical Clearing House (SCH) has now been successfully monitoring and reducing the reporting burden on businesses for 10 years. The SCH is responsible for reviewing surveys involving 50 or more businesses conducted by or on behalf of Australian Government departments and agencies. The primary purpose of the SCH is to reduce the burden of Australian Government surveys on businesses by ensuring such surveys do not duplicate existing collections and are of sufficient quality to warrant the burden imposed. I would like to see this approach extended to household surveys, to also reduce the duplication and burden on householders.
In February 2008, the latest version of theYear Book Australia was launched. The guest speaker for the event was His Excellency Major General Michael Jeffery, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. I am also pleased to report that all the year books, commencing with the 1908 edition, are now available on the ABS website. This is a significant resource, which is now more easily accessible.
NEW PRE-EMBARGO RELEASE ARRANGEMENTS
Another initiative I have introduced during 2007–08 is the new pre-embargo access arrangement. In order to ensure impartiality and integrity of ABS statistics, it is standard ABS policy and practice to make all our statistical releases available to all government, commercial and public users of our statistics, simultaneously on our website from 11.30 am (Canberra time) on the day of their release. Prior to 11.30 am, all ABS statistics for release are treated as confidential and as ‘under embargo’.
I am granting access through a secure lock-up, to a limited range of key statistical products under embargo when: there is high public interest in an issue of direct and substantial relevance to the statistics being released; a relevant government minister is highly likely to be asked to provide public comment on the statistics shortly after their official release; and/or the release is sufficiently complex that some advanced analysis of the key statistics and preparation of a ministerial brief by officials is considered essential. This is to ensure that initial comments made by relevant ministers regarding the headline features are well informed, thereby minimising the risk of misleading the public or, particularly, the financial markets, on an issue of national importance.
Access to statistical products under embargo will be facilitated through a secure lock-up or, in the case of the quarterly release of the Australian National Accounts: National Income, Expenditure and Product (cat. no. 5206.0), by means of a restrictive pre-release arrangement with the Australian Government Treasury.
The new arrangements are only provided to authorised government officials and Ministerial staff. Authorised persons attending a lock-up are required to remain in the secure room managed by ABS staff, and are prohibited from communicating any information from the statistical release to anyone outside the room, until the embargo is lifted at 11.30am (Canberra time). Attendees at the lock-ups are required to sign security undertakings, which include provision for prosecution under the Crimes Act, 1914 for breaching the lock-up conditions.
Although these arrangements have not been universally welcomed, government agencies do understand the rationale for the change, and are adapting their briefing processes accordingly. In introducing these new arrangements, I undertook to review the experience of the operation of this new environment after six months of operations. This will be in consultation with all departments (federal, state and territory) that have participated in lock-ups to that time.
The ABS is an active member of the international statistical community, contributing its efforts and resources across a wide range of activities and statistical fields. One key focus of our activities is on building the capacity of developing countries’ statistical systems, especially in the Asia-Pacific Region, as well as the development of international statistical standards and approaches. There are many international demands for ABS expertise and a strategy is being developed to guide the ABS leadership role in international statistics.
I am pleased to report that in 2007–08, the ABS continued to provide project management training as part of the Pacific Governance Support Program, funded by AusAID. Overall the training has gone well, with good appreciation of the training from the countries involved and positive outcomes in terms of running a specific survey as the basis for training. ABS officers have visited the Solomon Islands, Nauru, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, as part of this project.
The ABS continues to have a constant stream of visitors from countries in the region. For example, during the last few months the ABS has hosted a number of visits from representatives of government agencies in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and China.
More information on our international work can be found in Chapter 14, Statistical standards and infrastructure, and Chapter 15, International engagement.
The ABS work program is established in response to current and emerging statistical priorities of users and in the broader context of the ABS mission and overall strategic directions. The statistical drivers and demands of the government and community are broad ranging and are increasing both in volume and complexity. As Australia’s national statistical agency, the ABS has a responsibility to respond to these demands, in the context of its mission and the resources allocated to it. The ABS’ statement of strategic directions therefore presents the broad objectives that the ABS has chosen to pursue, which shape its priorities and work program for the period 2008–09 to 2010–11. Some of the key priorities for the future include:
National Statistical Service
In recent years the ABS has worked to strengthen client engagement and improve responsiveness to client needs, to raise the profile of its externally focused activities, and to increase the informed use of statistics. The ABS will continue to build and maintain relationships with users and producers of statistics, ultimately to improve the strength and coherence of the National Statistical Service (NSS) as a whole. Consistent with these aims, the forward work program for 2008–09 to 2010–11 places a strong emphasis on strategies aimed at progressing the NSS.
The NSS is at the core of ABS strategic directions over the next three years. The NSS, in which the ABS has a legislated leadership role, is the set of arrangements within Australia which provides an accurate, up-to-date, comprehensive and meaningful picture of the economy, society and the environment to support the formulation and monitoring of policies. This picture is ‘painted’ by the collection, compilation, analysis and dissemination of information sourced from administrative agencies or from specially commissioned surveys.
Securing NSS aspirations will mean governments and the community value and support high integrity information. Under an NSS encompassing producers and users of statistics, Australians will be able to manage data, make it accessible, and use it well. The NSS will also contribute to public information sources being fully used to provide a statistical picture of the economy, society and the environment. Infrastructure such as statistical standards, policies and tools will be shared in the NSS to maximise the value of investment and support integrated statistics.
As I have already mentioned, the new Australian Government has a range of new policy priorities, has changed the focus of its interactions with the state and territory governments and is seeking a broad range of community input into its longer term strategies. The work of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) across federal and state/territory governments is highlighting the need for improved information for government decision making across all levels of government in Australia.
In this changing environment the ABS will remain a key contributor of statistical information, and continue to be an advisor on statistical processes. The ABS must work to shape and influence government information needs early in the planning process, contributing to a more responsive and relevant statistical service. When agencies plan and make strategic policy decisions, the ABS needs to be seen as either the natural home for the necessary statistical information that will allow the measurement and reporting on the new policies, or as the source of statistical knowledge and expertise that can advise and assist them in their own statistical work.
There are increasing demands by information providers for simplified interactions with government. This is reflected in the Australian Government agenda that emphasises reductions in red tape and greater information sharing, by providing access to more convenient technology-based facilities for data providers.
Future work program
Increasingly complex issues in the Australian economy, society and the environment mean that production of existing statistics has become commensurately more challenging. The ABS is looking to the future, which will require more integrated economic, social and environment information, to better respond to cross-cutting policy issues. Significant steps forward will be required to address population wellbeing data gaps, social inclusion and Indigenous statistics. Implications for statistics will have to be determined arising from the evolution of the roles of the different levels of government.
Within this environment, the ABS needs to be providing improved leadership in addressing data requirements for all tiers of government. Delivering spatially enabled and integrated statistics and an increase in the availability of regional statistics will be crucial, as will ensuring improved access to, and analysis of, microdata, consistent with legislation and ABS values.
Unfortunately, the ABS resource base cannot continue to absorb these additional demands and new work, however minor, must be funded externally or by the ABS discontinuing other, lower priority work. Where there is an ongoing requirement for new statistics, funding will be sought via the Australian Government’s processes for funding new work or some other agreed arrangement that embeds the funding in the ABS’ core program appropriation.
To meet future challenges for the ABS work program, we will need to understand Australia’s evolving information needs and help to satisfy those needs. The ABS must invest in the capability and capacity of its future workforce. Staff will need skills and knowledge to be effective and efficient in the complex environment in which the ABS works, and help the ABS adapt to that rapidly changing environment.
Demands for data linkage and microdata access
The research community demand for microdata access and data linkage initiatives has grown significantly in recent times, as it seeks to understand relationships between social and economic circumstances and the impact of government policies. The ABS will work with the research community to establish the ABS role in this area. It will help to shape development of appropriate governance, methods, policies and protocols that as far as possible are in keeping with ABS statistical values and relevant legislative requirements.
ABS SAVINGS INITIATIVES
The ABS had to make some difficult decisions for the 2008–09 financial year and we are carefully considering our longer-term work program, in the context of our financial responsibilities.
In my incoming brief to the new government, I highlighted that the ABS budget situation for 2008–09 and beyond involved insufficient funds to sustain continuation of our current work program and provided us with no capacity to take on additional work on behalf of government or other stakeholders. Early in February, I confirmed with the Treasurer that the ABS would be unable to obtain any relief in the 2008–09 budget. As a consequence, I have had no option but to reduce our planned work program, as well as cut back the administrative budget.
After an initial release of options for savings initiatives and following some high level discussions, I issued the final list of changes to our survey program to staff on 8 May. These include:
In total, the initiatives will result in savings of around $22m and involve staff reductions of around 180 staff. I do not anticipate any staff redundancies will be required. We will accommodate these reductions through natural attrition, redeployments within the offices and, if necessary, by reallocation of work between offices. In addition, the ABS is looking for short term opportunities for staff to be outposted in other government agencies.
We are now preparing for a review of our long-term budget funding with the Department of Finance and Deregulation and this is on track to report in the second half of 2008. I am confident that our past performance will hold us in good stead during that investigation. The ABS has typically been exemplary in managing its budget, running small operating surpluses and only rarely obtaining additional funding to expand the work program. As a good example of our careful financial management, in the past 30 years, the ABS has not called on government to fund new investments in technology, which is a large part of the organisation’s assets. We have also had an ongoing approach to finding productivity savings to fund new work.
While these cuts to the work program are regrettable, I am confident the quality and integrity of the vast majority of ABS data will remain unaffected. I would like to emphasise that while the number or frequency of some statistical products will be slightly reduced, the ABS will continue to produce a very extensive range of statistical information.
I want to particularly thank the householders and businesses around Australia who provide the ABS with information for the official statistics we release each year. Without their willing cooperation, the work of the ABS would be very difficult and the official statistics we release would not be as relevant, accurate or useful.
I also want to thank our interviewers who collect the information from homes and businesses. I know they work hard to make the task of providing the ABS with information as easy as possible for householders and businesses.
In addition, I want to thank all the other ABS staff for their ongoing commitment to the ABS and the work we do. It has been a challenging year but the ABS staff have remained focused on achieving organisational goals, producing high quality official statistics, and providing exemplary public service. In particular, my executive team have been a strong support to me during this challenging year and I have certainly appreciated their assistance and commitment to the tasks at hand.
Another vote of thanks goes to the Chairperson of the Australian Statistics Advisory Council, Geoff Allen, and the members of the Council. I appreciate and rely on the high quality advice provided by the Council and look forward to working closely with them during 2008–09.
Finally, I would like to thank the Treasurer and the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs for their interest in the ABS and their ongoing support for the ABS’ role as an independent producer of statistics for the government and the Australian community.