RETIREMENT OF BRIAN PINK, AUSTRALIAN STATISTICIAN 2007-2014
Brian Pink, 14th Australian Statistician
Brian Pink became the 14th Australian Statistician in March 2007 and led the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) for seven years, retiring in January 2014. Having worked in official statistics for more than 47 years, he leaves the ABS with an internationally recognised and regarded reputation. A pioneer and innovator among statisticians, his legacy is the future vision of the ABS.
Brian’s career started at the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics in Sydney in 1966. Early in his career, Brian spent time in various statistical analyst and management positions in both Sydney and Canberra. In these roles Brian’s aptitude for technology quickly came to the fore when he wrote a computer program to replace the previous manual processing of motor vehicle registrations. As Director of Transport and Construction during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brian was the first to adopt a national approach to processing industry collections. Brian was also at the forefront of the move away from large censuses to more efficient sample surveys for industry collections.
In 1987 Brian moved to Western Australia (WA) to take up the state role of Deputy Commonwealth Statistician and Government Statistician. Building on his earlier experience in the Sydney office, Brian’s time in the west gave him a real affinity for the contribution of regional offices to the ABS’s work, and the importance of the ABS’s relationship with state government and other key stakeholders. While in WA, Brian jointly led the review that formally introduced National Processing Centres in the ABS. This was not without its challenges, but Brian’s vision and persistence was critical in implementing a major change that greatly benefitted the ABS in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of its activities.
Brian returned to Canberra in 1993 to the role of First Assistant Statistician, Technology Services Division. One of his major achievements was the introduction of Lotus Notes. This revolutionised the ABS knowledge management capabilities and collaborative working arrangements. People from all over the world came to see what the ABS had done, with many visitors stating ‘we don’t have leaders strong enough to do what you have done’.
Brian moved to the position of Group Manager—Statistical Support, which brought together the ABS’s field collection, dissemination and information technology (IT) operations. During this period, he was recognised as one of Australia’s top 30 IT managers.
In October 1999, Brian was appointed as New Zealand Government Statistician and Chief Executive of Statistics New Zealand. In the seven years he was in New Zealand, Brian played a critical role in creating a National Statistical System, including enhancing the use of administrative data, building a sustainable program of social statistics, attracting talented senior leaders, driving stakeholder responsiveness, and reshaping leadership to focus on strategy and project delivery. He also built a stronger relationship between Statistics New Zealand and the Maori and Pacific Islander communities.
Brian commenced his appointment as Australian Statistician on 5 March 2007, taking on the role in a challenging time for the ABS. His vision and leadership has ensured the continued production of high quality official statistics while also transforming the ABS for the future. In 2011 Brian led the successful 2011 Census of Population and Housing, achieving over 98% participation across the entire population whilst also developing new approaches to enable the ABS to deliver the first digital Census in 2016.
Brian recognised the importance of Northern Australia to governments, the community, and a successful Census, and established a Census Northern Australia Enumeration Strategy to address the significant data collection challenges in the Northern Territory and the northern parts of Western Australia and Queensland. He also ensured senior ABS representation in Northern Australia by elevating the role of the NT Regional Director to member of the Senior Executive Service and to have responsibility for operationalising the Strategy across all three jurisdictions.
Brian was passionate about improving ABS’s relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and during his time in the ABS he supported a number of initiatives that are discussed in the special article ‘Statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’. He championed the need for improved engagement through the 2011 Census and the expansion of the Indigenous Community Engagement Strategy resulting in an increase in Indigenous Engagement Managers employed with ABS. This has led to good partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and representative bodies which ABS continues to value. Brian’s commitment to improving engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has resulted in strong response rates, an improved range of statistics, and ensuring ABS provides data for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
His leadership fostered the introduction of innovative new collections, including a comprehensive Australian Health Survey involving self-assessment, biomedical measurement, physical measurement and nutrition intake. Brian led Australian Government efforts in developing arrangements for integration of data for statistical and research purposes and championed the development of statistical capability across governments and within the education system. He was instrumental in championing the importance of high quality information including setting up enhanced reporting for Council of Australian Governments (COAG) performance monitoring, and securing additional funding to enhance the coherence of economic statistics.
Brian oversaw ABS efforts to enhance the utility of microdata, while staying passionately committed to protecting the confidentiality of providers, not just because this is a legal requirement, but because the trust of providers is the currency with which the ABS trades.
Brian introduced the NatStats Conference of users and producers of statistics, with the inaugural conference held in Melbourne in 2008, and subsequently in 2010 in Sydney and 2013 in Brisbane. The NatStats conference is an opportunity for Australia’s statistical community to come together to help build and maintain a strong and vibrant statistical system that will help guide Australia’s future.
Brian was also active in the international statistical field, where he was instrumental in galvanising Chief Statisticians to modernise statistical processes in a collaborative manner based on agreed standards, including developing statistical metadata standards. He held numerous formal international roles, including Chair of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Committee on Statistics from 2008 to 2012, Chair of the Statistics Committee of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) from 2010 to 2012, and President of the International Association for Official Statistics (IAOS) from 2005 to 2007. He was a key player in many of the initiatives of the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC), including the fundamental principles of official statistics, investigating ‘big data’ opportunities, implementing national accounts and taking forward the measurement of progress.
Reflecting on Brian’s achievements and his strength as a leader, three key themes emerge.
The first was innovation—he was always exploring ways to do things more effectively and efficiently.
The second was vision—he understood the big picture, positioned the organisation for the future and inspired people to join him on the journey.
The third was commitment and dedication - he dealt with challenges and was prepared to do what it took, regardless of what was popular at the time.
Brian built strong teams, valuing diversity of thought and healthy discussion. He encouraged self-development, providing a balance of independence and direction to allow people the space to grow. He helped people to join the dots, and develop sharpness and focus to their work. He encouraged personal performance and developing talent, and he led by example.
Brian was passionate about the importance of the role of official statistics in society. As a member of the WA Electoral Commission (1997–2003), of the New Zealand Redistribution Commission (2000–07), and the Australian Electoral Commission (2008–14), Brian had direct experience of the fundamental importance of demographic statistics to the democratic process. While he saw government use as an important purpose, he often reminded us that open access to official statistics provided businesses and citizens with a window on the work and performance of government itself. It was this passion that drove Brian in his work for almost half a century.
Brian has been passionate and dedicated in positioning the ABS for the future. He championed a major information management transformation program to prepare the ABS, the National Statistical Service (NSS) and the international statistical community to meet the growing challenges of providing information in response to the ever-increasing needs of government, businesses and the broader community. The program also positions the ABS to take advantage of opportunities offered by new technologies and new data sources.
While much work needs to be undertaken to complete this journey, Brian has retired in the knowledge that the way ahead is clear and that an excellent foundation has been laid.
The staff of the ABS wish Brian a long, healthy and happy retirement.
Brian Pink’s farewell on 5 December 2013
STATISTICS FOR ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER PEOPLES
Statistics about the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been in high demand for many years and remain a high priority for all levels of government as well as other service providers and researchers. There is a strong focus on measuring the success of efforts to ‘close the gap’ between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and the non-Indigenous population in key areas such as life expectancy, education and employment.
Ensuring that statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are available and understood by them is equally important. These are statistics that focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing, rather than statistics that relate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the non-Indigenous population. They focus on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples value the world, the activities that they undertake and what makes them unique. Sometimes the difference between statistics about and statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is the level of detail and the usefulness to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The ABS collects statistics both for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The ABS has a strong history of working collaboratively with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to address statistical collection and dissemination challenges and issues, and to understand their statistical needs. By better understanding the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders, the ABS is working to produce statistics that are informative, relevant and meaningful to all users of this data. To meet this objective, the ABS has implemented appropriate strategies and formed important relationships allowing it to more effectively report on matters of importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The strategies used by the ABS aim to:
improve the survey experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
ensure the ABS collects data that is culturally appropriate, relevant and high quality for the issues that are of most importance to them
ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are aware of the range of information available for them and how to interpret and use it.
A selection of activities flowing from these strategies is discussed in this article.
Indigenous Community Engagement Strategy
The Indigenous Community Engagement Strategy (ICES) is a long-running ABS strategy which has helped the ABS build a strong relationship with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. The strategy enables the return of information in meaningful ways to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations.
The main objectives of the ICES are to:
enhance ABS engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in both data collection and dissemination
develop and deliver statistics that are accessible, appropriate and relevant to the local needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
advise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, organisations and analysts on the effective use of ABS statistics.
In recognition of the skills required to deliver these outcomes, the ABS employs specialist staff, called Indigenous Engagement Managers (IEMs), who are located in ABS Regional Offices. IEMs support the delivery of the ICES objectives by:
engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through collaborative partnerships to increase their understanding of and participation in ABS collections
returning information from ABS collections to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; this includes the provision of statistical training to communities in order to increase their access to and usage of ABS information
contributing to improvements in the quality and relevance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics for key stakeholders, including meeting the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
During 2013-14 the IEMs undertook a wide range of activities in remote, regional and urban areas with priority given to completing the return of information from the 2011 Census of Population and Housing and the 2012–13 Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (AATSIHS). The IEMs also started preliminary work on raising awareness of the upcoming 2014-15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS). A popular ongoing statistical literacy program delivered by the IEMs is the ABS’s Footy Stats Program which helps school students learn about statistical concepts like ‘data’, the ‘mean’ or a ‘census’, or how to calculate a percentage using fun football
activities. For example, students can carry out a census of their favourite team and then use that information to practise making graphs of the results.
In addition to this the ICES program has supported the ABS to seek the input and advice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on how to best meet their statistical needs. IEMs have played a crucial role in building relationships based on mutual trust to facilitate honest and open feedback.
Round Table on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics
The Round Table on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics was established by the ABS in early 2013 and meets about twice a year. Members are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across the country who were nominated for their grassroots experience in working with their communities. The ABS’s IEMs are also represented on the Round Table.
The creation of the Round Table is a significant initiative aimed at improving:
the quality of statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
the ABS’s engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples including the return of information to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population
the ABS’s efforts to build statistical literacy among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
It is the Round Table’s operational grassroots focus that distinguishes it from the other active high level forums the ABS already has in place for seeking advice and consulting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. Its members also have the opportunity to
speak for themselves, drawing on their own experiences, rather than on behalf of particular agencies or organisations. The creation of the Round Table builds on the grassroots engagement conducted by the ABS with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that occurred in the lead-up to and throughout the 2011 Census of Population and Housing and establishes an additional avenue for discussion and for exploring new approaches to overcoming old challenges. The combination of the Round Table’s input with the knowledge and experience of the ABS’s IEMs has created a rich source of operational advice for the ABS.
Members and ABS participants at the ABS’s first Round Table on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics in 2013 stand under the 11 metre commissioned painting Janganpa
Round Table members have provided valuable advice to the ABS on a wide range of operational matters related to improved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics. For example, members have explored and provided valuable feedback on:
Mungapunju Jukurrpa (Native Possum Dreaming at Mawurrji) from the Warlukurlanga Artists Aboriginal Association of Yuendumu, in the foyer of ABS House, Canberra.
Back row: Sharon Barnes (East Coast, NSW), Aven Noah (Mer Island, Qld), Peter Harper (ABS ACT), Chanston Paech (Alice Springs, NT), Renee Williams (ACT), Dianne Baldock (Tas.). Middle row: Julie Nankervis (ABS NT), Karen Parter (ACT). Front row: Debra Reid (Sydney, NSW), Sonia Townson (Bamaga, Qld), Eunice Yu (Broome, WA), Gayle Rankin (Adelaide, SA), Leonie Garvey (ABS Qld).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ perspectives on homelessness
- the collection of data on homelessness, racial discrimination and community leadership
- proposed new questions on long term health conditions and second residence for the 2016 Census of Population and Housing
- an objective for the 2014–15 NATSISS that relates to the usefulness of the NATSISS to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves
- strategies for the effective communication of survey results to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
In late 2012 the ABS released a statistical definition of homelessness that was developed for application to the general population of Australia. Under the definition, when a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:
is in a dwelling that is inadequate, or
has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable, or
does not allow them to have control of, and access to, space for social relations.
The ABS recognised that the understanding of the concepts of home and homelessness among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population differed from the understanding of the non-Indigenous population. To address this, the ABS undertook extensive community engagement to identify perspectives of home and homelessness for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples so that it could better inform the measurement and analysis of homelessness among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.
Perceptions of homelessness from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples indicate that there will be situations where:
some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would not be classified as homeless under the ABS statistical definition but would consider themselves homeless, such as a person who felt disconnected from their country and/or family but was living in an otherwise adequate dwelling
some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would be classified as homeless but not consider themselves homeless, such as a person staying with family in crowded conditions with a perceived lack of control and access to space. Although this is also likely to be the case for some non-Indigenous people, it is expected to have a bigger impact on estimates of homelessness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The different perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples identified through this engagement can be used to help interpret current estimates of homelessness by governments, other service providers, researchers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves. They can also be used to inform development of future housing and homelessness data collections and research by the ABS and outside the ABS, including the assessment of topics and data collection strategies for the 2016 Census of Population and Housing. The findings have already been used by the ABS to contribute to the development of a culturally appropriate set of questions on past experiences of homelessness for inclusion in the 2014-15 NATSISS.
The ABS employs local facilitators when enumerating surveys in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities such as the 2011 Census of Population and Housing, the 2012-13 AATSIHS and the upcoming 2014-15 NATSISS.
Facilitators are from the local community and, where possible, are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin. Up to two facilitators, preferably one male and one female are employed in each community to:
assist with movement around the community and help with the identifiable and application of required cultural protocols
accompany the ABS interviewer throughout the screening process (which involves locating households which have Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples as usual residents), where applicable
introduce the ABS interviewer and the Census or survey at each dwelling
explain the purpose of the Census or survey
be present throughout the interview and assist with language difficulties if required by helping to translate questions/responses into local languages.
The ABS also employs facilitators in discrete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to enumerate the Monthly Population Survey, which asks questions about a person’s employment status and is used to create the official employment and unemployment figures each month.
The use of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as facilitators is essential for a more positive survey experience for the respondent and assists greatly with the quality of the information collected through the process. In carrying out this role, the facilitators demonstrate their support for the survey and this, together with assistance in explaining the purpose of the survey and assisting with language difficulties, is where the real value of the facilitator strategy lies.
The ABS is extending the facilitator strategy to include selected non-remote and remote non-community areas for the 2014-15 NATSISS in an effort to improve response rates where response rates were lower than expected in the 2012-13 AATSIHS.
The ABS is always looking towards the future and identifying ways to improve the quality and relevance of our statistics for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In 2013-14 the ABS undertook two reviews that will help shape the future direction of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics program.
The first review was of the ABS Indigenous Status Standard which provides the framework for collecting and processing information related to Indigenous status. It includes a standard Indigenous status question which has been adopted across the ABS’s surveys and the Census of Population of Housing, as well as by many other agencies in their administrative collections or surveys. The review was to ensure the Standard continues to be relevant and involved significant consultation with government, research organisations, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies and organisations. While the review recommended that the standard Indigenous question be retained without change for the time being, it also recommended further research. The ABS is currently exploring research options, which will involve extensive consultation.
The second review was of the ABS’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics program to ensure it is efficient into the future and is flexible enough to remain relevant to stakeholder demands. As a result of this review, the ABS is exploring the further opportunities that administrative data can provide and working with stakeholders to improve the quality and usefulness of this information. The ABS also explored more
efficient methods of collecting information from discrete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that could be expected to deliver more frequent and better quality information for this population. The outcome of the review will see improvements in the Monthly Population Survey as a starting point.
In addition to these reviews, the ABS has started exploring the idea of developing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistical Framework. The ABS has had initial discussions with Statistics New Zealand (who recently released their draft Maori Statistical Framework) to explore what worked well and what could have been improved in the development of their framework. An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistical Framework would be developed in close consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to ensure that it was meaningful and relevant.
The ABS is confident that these developments, together with its existing strategies, mean that it is well placed to continue to lead the future development of high quality, relevant statistics for and about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, and to respond effectively to the ever-increasing demand for this data.
KEEPING GDP UP TO DATE AND THE NATIONAL ACCOUNTS RELEVANT IN A CHANGING ECONOMY
The Australian economy, and the economic behaviour of Australian households and businesses, is always changing. So it makes sense that the way the economy is measured also changes over time. This article explains some of the ways in which Australia's national accounts program has adapted to changes in the economy, and responded to some recent challenges faced by policymakers.
Tracking the mining boom
Capital investment by the mining industry has expanded rapidly in recent years, spurred on by high demand from overseas, particularly China, which has caused prices for mining commodities such as coal and iron ore to rise. These rising commodity prices drove the terms of trade to record levels in 2011; this in turn drove growth in real gross national income.
Investment is captured in various quarterly economic surveys such as those on new capital expenditure, building activity and engineering construction, as well as annual economy-wide surveys. Increased levels of investment have made strong contributions to economic growth in recent years through gross fixed capital formation, and the ABS has focused particular attention on ensuring this activity is measured accurately and coherently in the national accounts. In particular, reconciling imported components of capital equipment across the business surveys and in the balance of payments and merchandise trade statistics has become increasingly important. This reconciliation will continue into the future as a result of ongoing capital expansion in oil and gas, particularly for some large liquefied natural gas (LNG) mining projects.
In 2014 the investment phase (particularly in coal and iron ore mining) started to wind down, with businesses starting to use their new capital to achieve higher levels of production. This is expected to contribute positively to economic growth into the near future with much of the additional output being exported. Good measurement of increased production and export volumes will be critical.
Increased export volumes, combined with declines in capital imports as the investment phase winds down, are beginning to have a significant impact on Australia’s external balance as recorded in the balance of payments. In 2014 Australia’s current account deficit was the smallest it has been, as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) in current prices, since 1980.
In response to user demand, the national accounts began publishing more detail for gross value added of the mining industry from the September quarter 2012. Sub-industries for which statistics are published are: coal mining; oil and gas extraction; iron ore mining; other mining (which includes all activities other than those listed earlier); and exploration and mining support services. Production of output and use of resources for these sub-industries are balanced in the annual supply-use tables which underpin the quarterly national accounts. Changes in inventories of the mining industry are separately published in current price and chain volume terms. This allows users to understand how mining production responds in the short term to changing market demand.
Understanding the impact of financial shocks
The global financial crisis (GFC) started as a large financial shock emanating from overseas which transmitted to the Australian financial sector, and from there, across the economy. It eventually had significant impacts on the economic behaviour of Australian households, businesses and governments. Studies undertaken by the international statistical community and discussions with key Australian policymakers identified gaps in Australia’s macroeconomic accounts, and strategies were put in place to close them.
The ABS has prioritised these key areas to improve the quality of the National Accounts.
The largest data gaps in the national accounts were for quarterly statistics on saving, lending and wealth. In late 2014 the ABS will commence publishing a complete set of quarterly income and capital accounts for all institutional sectors, thus closing this data gap.
Financial accounts are published for all sectors, so the publication of income and capital accounts for all sectors will allow policymakers to more clearly understand the linkages between the ‘financial’ and ‘real’ economies. Policymakers and researchers will be able to study in detail how shocks in the financial system transmit to income flows, and to consumption, saving and investment decisions in the ‘real’ economy, and how production, consumption and saving activity at the sectoral level respond to financial shocks over time.
Understanding the economic behaviour of households
Since the GFC, the levels of household saving have been rising. Households are saving a proportion of income not seen since the mid-1980s, and are predominantly using this saving to build wealth. In trying to understand the behaviour of the ‘cautious consumer’ post-GFC, the ABS has expanded the amount of national accounts information available for the household sector. Since household final consumption expenditure is about 55% of GDP in current prices, a deeper understanding of household sector dynamics is important in understanding the drivers of economic growth.
In late 2013 the ABS commenced publishing a quarterly household balance sheet, accompanied by an analytical table showing the relationships between household income, saving, consumption and wealth. It allows users to see how shocks to household wealth (for instance, large and unexpected changes in property values or shares) affect household saving and consumption patterns. Later in 2014 the ABS will publish a set of experimental income account estimates from which some non-profit businesses that are currently included in the household sector will be removed. This will allow users to form a clearer picture of household saving behaviour over recent years.
The ABS has recently published a detailed statistical study on disparities of household income, consumption and wealth, disaggregated by quintile. This is the first time in Australia where data collected from individual households (from the Household Expenditure Survey and the Survey of Income and Housing) has been integrated with national accounts concepts and aggregates in this manner. The study helps policymakers understand sensitivities to income and wealth shocks in a distributive sense. For instance, consumption by households with low saving rates or low levels of accumulated wealth may be more sensitive to shocks to disposable income or wealth than households with relatively larger financial buffers.
Measuring the non-observed economy
Transactions in the non-observed economy that escape measurement have implications for the quality of the national accounts and other macro-economic statistics. Much of this activity is deliberately concealed, either because it is illegal, or because income flows from a legal activity are concealed to minimise or avoid tax payments (estimates of the latter are currently included in the national accounts). This makes it a difficult area for statisticians to measure. The non-observed economy also includes the ‘statistical underground’, which covers economic activity which is legal in nature, but is not reflected in the national accounts simply due to source data being unavailable.
An area of the statistical non-observed economy that has emerged in recent years is measuring online shopping by households, particularly the value of goods purchased online that are below the ‘low value’ taxation threshold. Source data is unavailable because these goods are not captured by Customs and, as a result, they do not appear in the ABS’s merchandise trade statistics. Using a variety of data sources, estimates of these ‘low value’ imports have been derived back to 2000–01, and are included in the national accounts as household final consumption expenditure and as imports, as well as in the balance of payments. This means the national accounts estimates of household final consumption expenditure are now more complete. An information paper was published explaining this work and its impact on GDP.
Experimental estimates and details of the supporting data sources and methodology around the value of the illegal drug economy were recently published in an information paper on the non-observed economy. While the non-observed economy has a number of components, it was considered that the illegal drug economy is the largest. International standards for national accounts recommend that illegal activity be included in the statistics where it occurs between consenting parties and can be reliably measured. Estimates related to the import, production and consumption of illegal drugs are not currently reflected in the Australian national accounts or balance of payments because there is no regular data source to capture them. The ABS will continue investigating ways in which this activity can appropriately be included in the accounts.
The ABS also continues to keep a watching brief on some areas where households produce goods or services for their own direct use that should be included in the national accounts. Estimates for household production of food (for instance, food produced from household vegetable gardens, fruit trees and livestock) are already included in the national accounts, but others have recently emerged, such as production of electricity via solar panels on roofs, or production of water services via backyard water tanks. These activities are not considered to be economically significant in the context of the national accounts yet, but they might be in the future. Additionally, more work will be required to measure online purchases of ‘intangible’ products by households. These are predominantly electronic products such as music, film and television, online newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and online gambling services.
Another way in which the national accounts can be used to provide information on important economic topics is through the use of satellite accounts. A long running example of this is the tourism satellite account which presents economic data for the tourism industry. This is data which is not otherwise available within the core national accounts, but which is crucial to a large and important industry.
Additional satellite accounts have been published recently. These include a satellite account for the non-profit sector which articulates the contribution not-for-profit organisations make to the economy. This is a particularly important contribution in the growing education and health industries, where not-for-profit organisations deliver a large portion of the services consumed.
Another area of development has been the production of satellite accounts linking the economy and the environment. These economic-environment accounts can be used to link economic activity to environmental management issues such as water and energy use. They have the potential to assist in ensuring an efficient allocation of natural resources.
This article has outlined some of the ways in which Australia’s national accounts program has been expanded and enhanced in recent times to reflect the changing nature of the Australian economy. It demonstrates ABS’s ongoing commitment to ensuring Australia’s macro-economic statistics are always of high quality by continuing to ensure the national accounts provide an accurate reflection of a changing world.
ACHIEVEMENT ON E-FORMS FOR BUSINESS
The face of ABS data collection is changing.
During 2013–14 the ABS has implemented online survey forms to make it easier for businesses and individuals to provide data. These online forms provide greater convenience to businesses and individuals through increased interactions online, reduced paper costs and are more efficient.
Over the past year many providers have been taking advantage of the opportunity to log-on to a secure website to access and complete their survey obligations, rather than filling out paper forms and returning them through the post. ABS online forms now cover 80 per cent of forms offered to ABS Business Survey respondents.
Businesses across Australia understand the value of providing the ABS with nationally important data that supports informed decision making for government and business.
The ABS thanks and appreciates the cooperation and time businesses provide in responding to ABS surveys.
The drivers for change
In its 2012-13 Annul Report the ABS identified that:
e-form capability is crucial for reducing the burden on providers and lowering some of the costs of collection
Like many national statistical offices, the ABS is facing increasing collection costs and complexity as well as provider resistance in the face of heightened demand for more timely and diverse statistical data in a tight financial situation. As Australia’s official statistical agency, the ability of the ABS to effectively respond to these challenges is key to its ongoing success.
Recent analysis of provider behaviour, conducted by the ABS, suggests that traditional approaches for supplying business survey data, is becoming more costly and is not sustainable. Information technology has changed the way Australian citizens expect to interact with the government. Businesses increasingly expect to interact electronically with the ABS.
The ABS has been moving toward a goal of increased electronic data collection for some time including the 2006 and 2011 Census of Population and Housing and the 2011 Agricultural Census. The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and the Household Energy Consumption Survey also successfully deployed web-based survey components in 2011–12.
To address both provider burden and increasing data collection costs, the ABS is rapidly expanding its electronic communication methods. For business collections the initial focus has been on making e-forms available for as many surveys as possible.
Benefits to data providers and the ABS
The use of e-forms to collect survey data has many benefits to data providers and the ABS. Provider burden and follow up is reduced and the ABS is able to reduce environmental costs and improve efficiency while maintaining the delivery of high quality outputs.
In the past 12 months, over 300,000 businesses were offered e-forms across 20 of the largest or most frequently run business surveys.
Gains for providers
The ABS values the survey participation of the Australian community. This support is crucial to the quality of statistics produced by the ABS. In recognition, the ABS is committed to reducing provider burden by:
simplifying provider obligations—online survey instruments provide an opportunity to ‘tailor’ surveys by presenting providers only with questions relating to their business or their situation. They no longer need to read through information not relevant to their business, as they would with a paper survey form
reducing the need for follow-up contact—using checks in the instrument to ensure all required data items are completed before the form is submitted
added convenience—with 24-hour online access to e-forms, help and survey information.
Gains for the ABS
The use of e-forms for business collections has been a success for the ABS, evidenced through:
electronic collection is driving strong efficiencies and reduced environmental costs through reductions in printing, mailing, staffing and administrative costs needed to manage the despatch, collection and capture of paper survey forms
achieving high response rates—business providers have responded positively to online surveys. In the past year to June 2014, the majority of business e-form surveys achieved online response rates above 90%.
using more efficient and effective follow-up strategies to collect critical data in time to produce quality estimates.
Challenges in collecting data electronically
The ABS must retain the public’s trust by maintaining respondents’ confidentiality and privacy. In providing for electronic interactions, the ABS has to address the following challenges:
ensuring essential security requirements are met while providing ease of completion for providers. The e-forms use 128-bit TLS/SSL encryption hosted within the ABS secure environment and a dedicated helpdesk to assist providers
catering for the diversity of data providers, the ABS collects data from vastly different sets of providers, with differing technology capabilities. The ABS uses contemporary tools that reflect best practice, and are also accessible and easy to use
ensuring continuous availability by meeting our providers’ expectations about the speed, capability and sophistication of online data collection within existing technical infrastructure.
The ABS is continuing to build on the success to date to enhance the respondent experience and drive further efficiencies. Identified priorities include:
adding coding and editing tools within e-forms to further reduce follow-up while maintaining data quality
offering adaptable online experience for different platforms, screen sizes, mobile devices and operating systems
sending electronic reminders to providers
designing easier registration and authentication solutions that maintain security, interact easily with ABS internal systems, and simplify the experience for data providers
upgrading our data collection and processing systems to achieve substantial efficiencies in both cost and timely delivery of statistics
reviewing survey design strategies to further enhance the user experience and to reduce provider burden.
For more information about online surveys please visit