1002.0 - Australian Statistics Advisory Council - Annual Report, 2016-17  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 19/10/2017   
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SUMMARY OF ACTIVITIES FOR 2016–17

The Council held two meetings during 2016–17: on 15 November 2016 and 21 March 2017 (refer to Agenda for ASAC listings). The proposed June 2017 meeting was deferred until August 2017 to enable more members to attend. (ASAC also conducted a strategic workshop in June 2016, detailed in last year’s annual report.)

2016 Census of Population and Housing

The Census featured heavily in discussions at each meeting.

The Council discussed both the origins and potential consequences of the digital system failure on Census night. Members provided their assessment of the impact on public trust and considered actions by the ABS needed to address this and to enhance stakeholder relations. Prior to the Census, the Council had discussed and advised on a number of issues, including the debate over the retention of names and addresses. Members noted the damage caused by inaccuracies and misinformation within the media and the need for the ABS to correct these in a timely way. Wider implications for the development of an effective communication strategy were discussed. Council members considered that they could play a useful supportive role by providing factual reporting within their communities of influence.

The Council has been strongly supportive of the move to a ‘digital first’ Census, which it sees as bringing advantages for users as well as improved cost-effectiveness and timeliness. The Council was pleased that, notwithstanding the problems encountered, the ABS achieved a response rate comparable to earlier Censuses, with an increase in online submission. The Council strongly supported the Statistician’s decision to convene an Independent Assurance Panel to assess the quality of Census data. The Panel, chaired by Professor Sandra Harding (a former Chairperson of ASAC), included ASAC member Anton Voss and ASAC member designate Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver AM. Its final assessment was that 2016 Census data are ‘fit-for-purpose’ and can be used with confidence.

The Council also discussed the MacGibbon Review and the Australian Senate’s Census Inquiry. It noted that in his report, Mr MacGibbon had supported the decision to take down the Census site. It agreed with the Review’s finding that issues around the Census involved not just deficiencies in technology but extended to organisational culture. The Council was briefed by the ABS on a range of actions being taken to bring about cultural change and was pleased to observe the leadership currently being exercised in this crucial area. It was informed that the ABS accepted and is implementing all of the MacGibbon Review recommendations. The main recommendations of the Senate’s majority report have also been accepted or noted, with the exception of one recommendation relating to the Minister assisting in the appointment of senior ABS staff. The Council concurred with the ABS response to this recommendation.

Productivity Commission Inquiry into Data Availability and Use

The Productivity Commission’s Draft Report on Data Availability and Use, was released in November 2016 with the Final Report released in May 2017. The Council welcomed the importance that it has assigned to addressing the duplication of effort, poor coordination and fragmentation across Australia’s statistical system, issues of long-standing concern to the Council.

ASAC provided an initial submission to the Inquiry, as well as one responding to the Draft Report. The latter drew attention to four issues in particular:

    • The need for a policy framework across all levels of government to support truly national data governance and ensure better management and use of quality administrative data.
    • The opportunity to leverage the ‘Essential Statistical Assets for Australia’ initiative as a basis for identifying National Interest Datasets.
    • The importance of institutional arrangements that recognise the role of states and territories as partners in Australia’s statistical system.
    • The need to improve data skills across all levels of government in order to realise efficient and effective production and use of data.

The Council welcomed the broad directions outlined in the Final Report, particularly the drive to encourage better sharing and use of data. However, the practical implementation of the recommendations will be a challenging and complex exercise. It will also require a significant investment. In a tight fiscal environment and with data skills already in great demand, government will need to ensure it balances prioritising report recommendations against other data initiatives.

In its submission to the Inquiry, the Council stressed the importance of state and territory participation in national data reform, with state data initiatives moving forward rapidly. In this environment, the ABS is well placed to extend its leadership role, given its unique experience over the years in producing coherent national statistics from a wide range of sources.

Data Reform Agenda

State and territory governments have been seeking to overcome barriers and restrictions to data sharing and integration through:
    • introduction of data sharing legislation (New South Wales, South Australia)
    • investment in data integration capabilities (e.g. South Australian Office for Data Analytics, Victorian Centre for Data Insights, Queensland Government Statistician’s Office and the New South Wales Data Analytics Centre).

The Council welcomed presentations made to it during the year by the New South Wales Data Analytics Centre, and officials from the South Australian Government, the latter in relation to its Public Sector (Data Sharing) Bill 2016 (which established the Office for Data Analytics). There are a number of common issues across these initiatives that also apply to the work of the ABS, notably:
    • privacy issues, including codes of conduct and legislated obligations
    • nationally accepted standards regarding what is considered ‘personally identifiable’ data
    • governance and engagement processes to ensure projects address identified policy needs.

ASAC was pleased to note that the ABS is collaborating with government partners to build trust in the quality, confidentiality, and value of integrating public sector data, as shown, for example, by its leadership of data integration projects involving multiple Commonwealth agencies. The Council considered that flagship projects such as the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project (MADIP) and the Business Longitudinal Analysis Data Environment (BLADE) demonstrate what can be achieved to provide new policy insights through safe and efficient use of data that has already been collected. Integrated datasets of this kind are valuable to researching cross-sectoral policy issues.

The Council continues to support the further development and acceleration of data integration activities as a mechanism for advancing the effective utilisation and thus value of public sector data.

ABS Forward Work Program and Budget

The Council discussed the ABS 2016–17 work program and performance against four strategic priorities:
    • delivery of the Census
    • delivering and maintaining the quality of key statistics
    • progressing microdata access and integrated data
    • transforming the ABS for the future.

Members advised on balancing statistical priorities and meeting the demand for new and innovative statistics within budgets set by Government.

At the March 2017 meeting, the Statistician consulted the Council on the comprehensive review by the ABS of its statistical forward work program and options for rationalisation and enhancement of datasets under budgetary pressure. Members were provided with an update on the ABS funding profile, including projected reductions in appropriations and the ABS’ reliance on user funding, particularly for key social statistics.

It was noted that in the absence of additional funding, difficult decisions around prioritisation of statistical products will be required. Given that very little data currently being collected do not have strong support, the ABS would need to continue to engage effectively with relevant stakeholders on the trade-offs involved.

In response to the ABS, the Council commented on the overall shape of the statistical program and the scope for reducing or ceasing a number of collections, including through the utilisation of alternative data sources, and modified reporting arrangement for other collections. The Council raised a number of issues in relation to managing the impacts of the efficiency dividend, including the importance of transparent decision-making for any changes to collections, and the social value of datasets under review relative to limited associated fiscal savings.

In so doing, it was evident to the Council that current funding arrangements pose risks for important statistical resources, with little capacity to make enhancements as our economy and society grow in scale and complexity. Notwithstanding significant operational savings and the tapping of funding from users of specific collections (mainly within the public sector) the real declines in its annual appropriation have become increasingly hard for the ABS to accommodate without diminishing its outputs or their quality. The Council noted that statistical bodies in New Zealand and Canada appear to be much more highly funded in proportionate terms.

The impacts of under-funding have been compounded by public sector staffing rules that, perversely, prevent user funds being drawn on to employ extra staff needed to produce the data in demand.

The Council believes that these matters need to be addressed by the Government as a matter of urgency.

ABS Transformation Agenda

ASAC has continued to provide feedback to the ABS as it moves forward with its transformation agenda. The Council has seen evidence of significant progress across all dimensions of transformation, and provided specific advice on matters relating to governance, culture, workforce and infrastructure. ASAC anticipates improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of ABS operations and enhanced stakeholder relations as a consequence of its responses to a number of recent reviews (including those undertaken after the Census).

An overview of new governance structures, following a commissioned review, was presented to the Council at its March meeting. Membership of the multiple external advisory fora was seen as a key issue, along with the nature and frequency of meetings.

The Council has been taking a keen interest in the approach of the ABS to cultural change. This process started three years ago at the time of the Capability Review and the then Treasury Secretary’s ‘Review of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’. While some issues faced by the ABS were found to be similar to those of other government agencies, the Bureau’s independence and distance from politics brought both challenges and opportunities.

It was acknowledged that the increase in two-way sharing of staff across agencies has been a positive development, while increased access and use of data by key partners has proven beneficial for both the ABS and its partners.

Progress of the Statistical Business Transformation Program (SBTP) has been monitored by the Council, and featured in discussion at each ASAC meeting in 2016–17. The Council acknowledged that the June 2016 mid-stage Gateway Review found an acceptable level of delivery. The Program was on track to achieve deliverables required at that time for the ABS to secure the remaining funding to complete the Program. The next Gateway Review is scheduled for November 2017.

The Council welcomed the investment in infrastructure, and confidence shown by Commonwealth partners in supporting the ABS as the whole of government integrator. Members recognised the importance of data integration at the unit record level and how seamless access to such data could attract international as well as domestic users. The Council nevertheless flagged that a strategy may also be needed to encourage users to develop capability in the use of data.

ASAC Role and Operations

At his final meeting in November 2016, the outgoing Chairperson, Geoff Allen AM, told Council members he was delighted with the appointment of Professor Gary Banks AO as his successor, and said his experience, standing in the policy community and personal qualities made him ideal for the role.

At its March 2017 meeting, the first with its newly appointed Chairperson, the Council had an open discussion on the contemporary role and operations of ASAC. This affirmed that the Council’s strength lay in its ability to provide high level strategic advice as a ‘critical friend’ of the ABS, assisting with key judgements about priorities, engagement and risks, as well as it being an advocate of influence for better national statistical resources.

Members endorsed the need for breadth and seniority of representation on the Council, noting that ASAC meetings had benefitted from senior appointments at the state level during the past year. ASAC’s de facto status as a ‘national’ institution depended on representation from across all jurisdictions. It was agreed that in circumstances where jurisdictional representatives were unable to attend particular meetings, suitable nominees could represent them.

Council members are appointed for their ability to identify emerging issues and needs and bring these to the attention of the ABS, while also assisting in promoting the value of greater coordination nationally and within jurisdictions and sectors. The Council agreed that there may also be circumstances where it would be appropriate for ASAC members to advocate in support of the ABS itself, with the need for clarification of issues arising in the recent Census a case in point.

ASAC will continue to provide guidance to the ABS in assessing trade-offs around priorities and other aspects of its work program.

A formal ‘Statement of Intent’ outlining the role of ASAC and its operations and priorities for 2017 was endorsed by members.