This report marks my retirement after a period of some 18 years as a member of ASAC. It is an appropriate time to reflect on the activities and outcomes of the work of the Council.
The starting point is membership. ASAC has been fortunate to have had the unpaid services of a very diverse, experienced and concerned group of Australians. There has been frequent turnover, which ensures that different points of view have been represented. This means that it has not always been possible to reach unanimous viewpoints and very often the great value to the ABS professionals has been in appreciating the different viewpoints.
How then can we judge the contribution of ASAC? The ABS has a large and talented staff with close connections to information providers and users of output. Then there are the specialist consultative groups (including government departments) which provide valuable inputs. This leaves the important macro policy issues for the focus of ASAC’s work.
The ABS produces a wide range of statistics, and constituencies for continuing (or expanding) those statistics are quickly formed. Examples are census products, labour market statistics, price and wage indexes etc. Budget constraints in recent years means that new resources to cover new areas of the economy and society can only be financed by either productivity improvements in the ABS, sales revenue for publications or less frequent collection of some of the more costly products. ASAC is therefore confronted with issues at the margin and advising on the ranking of competing priorities.
ASAC has been most effective when it has identified important issues and has kept coming back to the issues until they have been satisfactorily addressed. This is a long process often covering many years. Some examples of the diverse areas where ASAC has made a real contribution are: the importance of electronic data collection, processing and distribution; the large gaps in Indigenous statistics; charging for publications; the need for much greater coverage of the fast growing service sector including IT statistics; the policy needs for more local area data.
The Census is a major operation for the ABS and the army of part-time workers engaged to cope with a very large workload. The efficiency improvements over the past two decades are remarkable. This has been achieved without sacrificing quality. Australian census data ranks with the best in the world.
Much remains to be done to improve Australia’s statistical service. Progress in drawing together statistical data from a multitude of sources has been slow. The new economy presents many statistical challenges, which require pioneering and exciting statistical innovation. Globalisation is also changing many of the well established concepts. It has become evident, for example, that using GDP as a measure of Australia's progress is inadequate, but as we struggle with measurement of many of the new concepts it is clear that there is no simple solution.
The answer to meeting future statistical needs and maintaining the highest professional standards requires that the funding of the ABS be given an adequate priority. Policymakers are dependent on quality statistics and it is therefore important that the Government allocates sufficient financial resources to ensure Australia is well served in future.
ASAC is a body where information flows both ways across the table. ASAC members thus act as informed agents for the work of the ABS. My time on the Council has been very rewarding and much of the credit must go to the high quality ABS staff - a group who have accepted the challenge of international excellence.