1001.0 - Australian Bureau of Statistics -- Annual Report, 2014-15  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 15/10/2015   
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AUSTRALIAN STATISTICIAN'S REVIEW

Image: Australian Statistician David Kalisch

INTRODUCTION

It is an honour, privilege and responsibility to be the 15th Australian Statistician.

The ABS is one of Australia's most trusted institutions, with community confidence and respect around the way it has documented our nation's development over the past 110 years. Over time the ABS has introduced an extensive range of statistical information that reports on the nation's economic, social and environmental conditions.

In the past year, the ABS released over 500 statistical products, all available to key decision makers as well as the general public, while planning our digital-led Census for 2016.

The ABS is delivering more information back to the community now than was the case just 15 years ago, at the same time as our economy, labour market and society have grown and become more complex. Over the same 15 year period, the resources provided to the ABS from government have also reduced significantly, and we are a more effective and efficient organisation. This has been achieved through the commitment, dedication, skills and expertise of ABS staff.

I am very pleased that the Government has agreed to our request for funding to refresh our statistical infrastructure, with provision of an additional $250 million over the next five years (2015-16 to 2019-20), the first significant infrastructure investment in over two decades. This recognises the critical importance of the ABS producing accurate, timely information for a range of purposes.

It also demonstrates the Government's confidence that the ABS will effectively implement the Statistical Business Transformation Program over the coming years, to better manage our risks and put in place enterprise-wide approaches that are more efficient. This is a necessary and ambitious change program, and the ABS will put in place processes to systematically manage the statistical risks.

We are not only looking to modernise our key infrastructure but we need to also transform our statistical business. This includes developing better ways to acquire, process and disseminate information.

In addition to infrastructure funding, the Government has provided the ABS with the opportunity to propose changes to our legislative framework that would support our essential activity, especially for the future operations of the ABS, and this will be progressed over the coming year.

TRANSFORMING THE ABS

Since my appointment in December 2014, I have emphasised three main outcomes for the ABS in coming years.

The first outcome is the continued delivery of rigorous, robust, timely data that meets a wide range of user needs and also has the trust of our data providers, and is drawn directly from either households or businesses or from other sources such as administrative data collections.

The second outcome is to foster increased innovation around what we do and how we work, so we can respond to changing requirements for information by key decision makers and the community. We should also find new information opportunities we can capitalise on, and recognise the need to reform our processes so we can continue to deliver quality, timely information with limited resources.

The third outcome is to ensure that the nation gets greater value from the information resources held by the ABS, recognising that ABS data is a key element of Australia’s national infrastructure, which if used effectively can enhance our nation’s growth and productivity potential as well as assist governments and others confronting complex problems and difficult choices.

OUR TRANSFORMATION PROGRAM

Over recent months, considerable attention has been given to transforming the ABS for the future. We must:

  • ensure we understand the complex and dynamic information environment in which we operate and strengthen our key partnerships
  • have a clear, focused and contemporary strategy for the entire ABS
  • have agile, efficient and effective governance structures and supporting mechanisms
  • have a workforce of people that is diverse, expert and adaptable
  • have an organisational culture that delivers high performance, innovation and creativity, accountability and collaboration
  • have infrastructure that is fit-for-purpose, with particular attention to our statistical systems and processes as well as physical accommodation for our staff.

The key transformation elements - of environment, strategy, governance, people, culture and infrastructure - will be the areas of attention for ABS leadership during our change program over at least the next five years.

Diagram: Six transformation goals of Environment, Strategy, Governance, Infrastructure, Culture, and People

IMPROVED GOVERNANCE

The ABS has revisited its governance arrangements, in order to encourage and enable more agile and better decision-making. Changes over recent months include a flatter organisational structure with attention to managing our key opportunities and risks, greater clarity around senior accountabilities, and refreshing our internal delegations to ensure decisions are being made at the lowest appropriate level.

A new Corporate Plan will drive the ABS transformation agenda.

We will need to increase our pace of innovation over coming years to at least match that of the dynamic information environment we are in. We will also have higher expectations of our managers and our staff, commensurate with their skills, remuneration and the training we provide across the organisation.

DRIVING HIGH PERFORMANCE

In the interconnected and rapidly changing information environment in which we now have to operate, the ABS will have to derive greater value from a more diverse and adaptable workforce.

Over the past year, the ABS has fully understood the messages it has received from recent reviews - including the 2013 Australian Public Service Commission Capability Review - about the need to drive change well beyond our transformation of processes and systems and to challenge and review ABS culture and values.

Guided by the ABS Capability Action Plan, the ABS has increased expectations that leaders and managers at all levels will make sound judgements supported by principle-based policies and management, including building on existing performance management processes to facilitate high performance.

The ABS has also prioritised external engagement as a business strategy for the ABS. This includes the creation of the Strategic Partnerships and Projects Division. ABS is increasing ABS staff exposure to the context in which the ABS operates so they understand, commit to and contribute to the ABS transformation agenda.

The ABS has been acknowledged as a public service leader in pursuit of flexible working arrangements and effective use of technology, and we are looking to harness this in the context of a high performance organisation.

Looking forward, we require a good balance of staff with past experience in the organisation as well as those who come with other experiences and insights, to ensure we capitalise on the input of staff throughout the organisation.

We will seek to draw greater value from insights and collaborations across the ABS, capitalising on the expertise we have across our 2,800-strong organisation through developing a stronger team based culture that is aligned to the best interests of the organisation as a whole.

We need to not only have depth and breadth of technical statistical skills, and staff who understand how to make best use of key information for a range of purposes, but also to have management and corporate services expertise that complements our information-related expertise.

I strongly feel that the ABS should be an employer of choice, so it can continue to attract and retain high quality staff. With our predominantly project-based work, in most areas we can provide greater flexibility and adaptability for staff to deliver required outputs within predictable timeframes, and we actively encourage our staff to improve what we do and how we work.

If the ABS is to maintain its reputation as a world class national statistical organisation, we will need an organisational culture characterised by high performance, quality leadership, trust and innovation.

PARTNERING TO BUILD A DYNAMIC STATISTICAL SYSTEM

A key approach of the ABS to deal with today's dynamic information environment is to have strengthened partnerships, with governments, business and the community. This will deliver improved understandings - for us and our stakeholders - around competing priorities, what is required, what is feasible and what is affordable.

An example of this is the ABS and Department of Industry and Science partnership to expand ABS collection and analysis activities to assess new industry policy initiatives. This has involved the creation of a new firm-level longitudinal business database - the Expanded Analytical Business Longitudinal Database - to provide a richer source of information for analysis of business performance, competitiveness and productivity.

Department of Industry and Science partnership: the creation of the Expanded Analytical Business Longitudinal Database will enable Australia to participate in a project sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development examining the links between employment growth, productivity, business age and business size.

Enduring partnerships between the ABS and our key stakeholders will have two main characteristics of mutual respect and mutual benefit, and increased collaboration will be a key feature of a transformed ABS over coming years.

HARNESSING THE ABS FOR GREATER PUBLIC VALUE

The information resources of the ABS are part of Australia's essential infrastructure. More effective use of these ABS data has the potential to contribute to better decision-making and enhance our country's growth potential, productivity and wellbeing. Taxpayers have paid for this information to be collected and produced, and ABS legislation requires the ABS to maximise effective use of this information balanced against the requirement to maintain the privacy of sensitive information (especially from people and households) given to the ABS.

The recently completed ABS initiative to identify and prioritise the Essential Statistical Assets for Australia will also be a key input to future prioritisation of our work program and associated resource prioritisation.

The value of the ABS has always been built on providing trusted, reliable information. The prevailing challenge for the ABS now and over coming years is, with limited resources, to reconcile these expanding expectations and deliver quality, timely, priority information for a range of purposes.

The ABS encountered some issues with its labour force estimates in August/September 2014, while we were introducing many necessary changes to our household survey program. A number of subsequent reviews have provided key recommendations around some technical matters as well as the broader leadership of the organisation.

The ABS has agreed with these recommendations and has already implemented most of them, so we are better placed to continue to deliver quality, timely information across our entire statistical program.

The bottom line for the ABS is that we need to manage our statistical risks more carefully, especially when they involve major changes to our statistical program.

INCREASING ACCESS TO DATA

The ABS operates within a thorough legislative framework, largely established in the 1970s, that guides our decision-making.

The ABS requires this robust legislative framework because of the sensitive data we receive from households and businesses, as well as the trusted role we have been given in managing and reporting this information.

The ABS has made significant progress towards improving the availability and use of data, as advances in both technology and statistical methodology now enable us to provide greater access to data, but in ways that do not disclose sensitive personal information.

Because of these advances, we have already pursued some opportunities to use our information more effectively within the constraints of our current legislative framework.

I recently agreed to enhance access to the linked longitudinal Census dataset - comprising five percent of the Australian population - by making it available through the ABS Data Laboratory. This dataset is enabling rich research, such as into the propensity of Australians to identify as being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin.

A number of arrangements are being used effectively and safely to help meet government demand for necessary information, especially access to microdata:
  • the Productivity Commission currently has two in-posted officers to access data required for their Migration Inquiry
  • a Department of Social Services officer is to be in-posted to access a linked dataset containing Census and social security information
  • the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has two in-posted officers to access data for an extensive burden of disease project funded by the Department of Health.

The ABS has shared its automated anonymisation routines for testing purposes in the Departments of Human Services, Health, and Social Services, in the expectation that the routines will be a whole-of-government solution for protecting the privacy of sensitive personal information in statistical applications.

INNOVATIVE DATA SOLUTIONS

We are reviewing our core economic and business statistics in order to streamline our survey collections from business, make better use of whole-of-government infrastructure, and expand our use of government administrative data and commercial information.

We will introduce a new Australian Population Survey as a consolidated mechanism to collect information from households and deliver a rapid response capability.

The ABS is making more use of data integration, which safely brings together existing data sources to create new datasets through use of advanced technology and statistical tools, to create new data sources for statistical, policy and research purposes. The ABS was the first agency to be accredited as an Integrating Authority in April 2012.

The ABS worked closely with the National Mental Health Commission, the Department of Health, and the Department of Human Services to provide timely statistics on mental health by linking information on the use of medical services with Census data.

ABS innovations will meet new and emerging data needs. For example, the ABS is developing a prototype known as the Graphically Linked Information Discovery Environment (GLIDE), which is a suite of tools using Semantic Web methods to help analysts explore and visualise linked data. GLIDE has linked personal income tax data with business tax data to explore new methods to manage, link and analyse cross-sectional and longitudinal data.

A pilot project to inform policy development through the combination of Census and social security information was established between the ABS and the Department of Social Services.

The ABS is already a user of big data - with considerable potential to use much more - as effective use of this government data reduces our need to collect information separately and directly from households and businesses.

ABS is moving beyond the public data environment to draw insights from retail scanner data, to explore options with other data sources such as investigating the use of satellite imagery to measure agriculture crop yields and new methodological approaches to using telecommunication location information.

The spatial opportunities of big data approaches are considerable and have the potential to fundamentally change how we produce population information - especially the extent to which we can measure temporal dynamics which have generally been beyond the reach of traditional approaches.

DIGITAL-LED CENSUS 2016

The 2016 Census will be Australia's first predominantly online Census. For this Census, we will be promoting online response as the first option for households - the majority of Australians will not receive a paper form unless it is specifically requested by the householder.

The ABS expects nearly two-thirds of all responses to be completed through the online form which will be accessible on a wide range of devices, from desktop and laptop computers to smart phones and tablets.

Census 2016 will take place on 9 August 2016.

Planning for the 2016 Census is at an advanced stage and progressing to plan. Our Census-related activity will obviously become a major priority throughout the 2015-16 year in the lead-up to the Census.

Census 2016 will generate 327 tonnes less material than Census 2011.

In considering its transformation options the ABS suggested to the Australian Government that the frequency of the Census be changed from every five years to every ten years. In addition, an expanded household population survey program was proposed, to include a new longitudinal survey across Australia. The aims were delivery of more regular and reliable regional population information; reduction in volatility in our labour force series; improvements in the range of statistical information for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and better measurement of changes in economic and social circumstances for key disadvantaged groups.

Following consultation with parliamentary representatives concerning necessary legislative change and associated timing requirements, it was decided to give priority instead to the considerable logistical exercise of running the Census in 2016.

SUPPORTING THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENTS DIGITAL AGENDA TO REDUCE RED TAPE

The ABS is participating actively with the Australian Government's digital transformation agenda and is collaborating with other departments and agencies to connect users better with information, make digital transactions for our providers easier, and improve access to information for all Australians.

Consistent with this agenda, ABS plans to make it easy and convenient for businesses and households to complete ABS surveys online. Over the past three years, the ABS has already introduced electronic forms to replace paper forms, and has moved to digital data collection for most of its business surveys and some of its household surveys.

The ABS plans to make further improvements to enhance the online survey experience for users, and to introduce smarter and more adaptive electronic forms in the near future, while also ensuring information quality.

The ABS has engaged with the Australian Taxation Office to plan for the implementation of a Standard Business Reporting gateway for financial reporting by businesses.

Many businesses have already adopted Standard Business Reporting for tax purposes and this capability is embedded in commercial software products.

We will establish a gateway to trial reporting by businesses using Standard Business Reporting which aims to make it easier and more convenient for them, while maintaining and potentially improving the quality of our statistical outputs.

A NEW SURVEY MANAGEMENT CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE

In November 2014 the ABS announced that it would be opening a ninth office as a Survey Management Centre of Excellence.

The new office is leased from Deakin University and provides the catalyst for a strategic partnership between the ABS and the university.

Located in Geelong, the office will be a national hub for all provider management and data acquisition, as well as the home of a Statistical Instrument Design and Development Unit.

With around 250 staff, the centre will deliver strategic and operational benefits and is expected to open in early 2016.

IN CONCLUSION

It has been a very busy and varied year for the ABS, with a number of challenges presenting themselves, but it has also been a year which the ABS has been able to position itself for a renewed statistical future.

The arrest and sentencing of a former ABS employee for insider trading has been one of the most disappointing events in the ABS's 110 year history.

The severity of the sentence for the former ABS employee and his co-accused sends a clear message to the community about the essential integrity of ABS data and ABS processes, and supports strong internal efforts by the ABS to reduce the likelihood of any other improper use of ABS data.

The coming year will be challenging for the ABS with further preparation for the 2016 Census and our large transformation agenda. It will also be a very exciting one as we look to take best advantage of the emerging information opportunities, and expect the ABS will make further progress delivering the valuable information infrastructure required by the nation.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to thank the thousands of people across Australia who participate in our business and household surveys; without their ongoing cooperation and support it would simply not be possible to provide the statistical information needed to foster informed debate and drive evidence based policy making.

Similarly, there is a significant ongoing contribution to Australia's statistical system made by the various public sector agencies that provide reliable administrative information used by the ABS for a range of official statistics. This includes vitals data supplied by the Registrars of Births, Deaths and Marriages, immigration and customs data from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, financial services information sourced from the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority and government financial information sourced from all governments. The continued support and assistance of these agencies is greatly appreciated.

I also want to recognise the contributions made by ABS staff, including our interviewers, who have continued to produce high quality, trusted statistics while working with fragile and ageing systems. In particular I want to recognise the effort of our leaders through this period of transformation, specifically Jonathan Palmer who acted as Australian Statistician for the first five-and-a-half months of this reporting period.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the significant support for the ABS from the Treasurer, the Hon. Joe Hockey, MP, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, the Hon. Kelly O’Dwyer, MP. Their recognition and advocacy for the role of the ABS were critical in maintaining the Government's confidence and securing the financial investment for our transformation program.


David W. Kalisch
Australian Statistician