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Chapter 3 - Role of ASAC
The legislation makes it quite clear that the role of Council is an advisory one rather than a governing role. It should also be noted that the Act covers all statistical services provided for public purposes, not just those of the ABS. Advice to the Minister, would usually be by way of letter or by a special briefing but this has been rarely used. For the Australian Statistician “advice” is by means of the discussion on listed agenda items, or possibly by means of discussions with a sub-group of ASAC members between meetings.
Council’s primary role has been providing advice to the Statistician, in particular as it relates to changes in the external environment that are relevant to ABS statistical activities, both current and future. Specifically, Council has been involved in advising on:
To date Council has been very effective in its role. Prior to his departure, the previous Statistician, Bill McLennan, who had been involved with Council since its inception, praised its contribution to the ABS and its statistical priority setting. To quote “...all members, past and current, have brought great experience and knowledge to their role, and I thank them for their significant contribution. They have served the Parliament and the ABS well by acting as a sounding board, forcing the ABS to explain its strategic directions, and providing an external review process.”
The operation of Council
The qualities of the membership of Council has been critical to the success of Council over the years. The make-up of Council as specified in the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975 is as follows:
The Act also specifies that as part of the membership, each State and Territory government is entitled to nominate one member to Council.
One of the key qualities of members has been that they have been drawn from a wide cross section of the community and have been selected for the expertise and experiences they bring to Council as opposed to representing any particular constituency. Another key aspect to the operations of Council is that consensus is not essential and often not achieved, as the ultimate decision on statistical matters lies with the Australian Statistician. An outcome of this is that debate is vigorous and broad ranging, and the Chairperson has a critical role in bringing the discussion threads together. An inevitable result of this process is that the ABS is exposed to a wide cross section of views which inevitably must lead to better decisions by the ABS.
In considering its operations in 2000-01, Council agreed that two meetings (as opposed to the three meetings that had been traditionally held) of the whole of Council should be held each year. The first meeting would be held in March, and would provide the opportunity for members to advise the Statistician on key statistical priorities for the coming 3 to 5 years, and for the ABS to provide feedback on existing and proposed strategies to address those priorities. The second meeting would be held in November. At that meeting the ABS would present the rolling three-year statistical work program, and highlighting the strategies for addressing the statistical priorities identified by Council. Members would have a further opportunity at that meeting to comment on remaining gaps, or redundancies in the work program.
Council was of the view that the cycle of two meetings would provide it with the opportunity to advise on priorities and to provide feedback on the ABS rolling forward work program within the context of the ABS annual planning cycle. Council saw this approach being of benefit in that it would allow the Statistician to incorporate Council’s advice in a systematic way and to report on the linkage between work program initiatives and priorities identified by Council.
Key statistical issues, which went beyond current work program development, but also needed Council consideration, could be added to the agenda at either meeting.During 2000-01 the Productivity Commission inquiry into cost recovery by Government agencies was an important issue for the ABS, which was referred to Council for consideration and input. On such issues it was agreed that it would be appropriate to occasionally invite external experts to attend discussions of some items. By way of example Professor Judith Sloan, one of the Commissioners conducting the Inquiry, was invited to attend the April 2001 meeting of Council to discuss the above Productivity Commission inquiry.