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Chapter 1 - Australian Statistician's review of 2005-06
There had been a number of developments for the 2006 Census to make the operation as efficient and effective as possible, and to take advantage of new technologies available. For the first time, an Internet option, the eCensus, was available, with initial figures indicating that around 8.7% of Australians had chosen to complete the Census form online. As expected, many more Census forms were mailed back compared with previous Censuses. It was important that collectors know which forms had been returned, by internet or mail, as soon as possible. Systems were designed to provide automatic SMS messages to collectors to tell them when someone had completed their form online and so there was no need to go back to collect it. SMS was also used to communicate with collectors on other issues.
By the time this report is published, the processing of Census forms will be well underway at the Data Processing Centre established in Melbourne. During 2005–06, the processing systems were finalised and tested, using data from the Census Dress Rehearsal in August 2005. Also during 2005–06, the ABS consulted widely with users on the proposed strategy for the dissemination of Census data, and took the feedback into account in developing the range of new products and services, which will largely be available through the internet.
Photo taken by Andrew Sheargold from the Canberra Times
The Census Time Capsule project will ensure that the Census information, for those people who gave their consent, will be retained by the National Archives of Australia with no access for 99 years, after which the information will be available to historical researchers and genealogists.
Another important initiative with the 2006 Census was the Census Data Enhancement project. The main feature of the project is the creation of a Statistical Longitudinal Census Dataset (SLCD), which will be based on a 5% sample of the population. Records for this sample group will be brought together from each Census by statistical techniques that do not involve the use of name and address. Using the same statistical techniques, the dataset will be used with other non-ABS datasets for approved statistical projects. The other datasets being considered are: birth and death register data, long-term immigration data, and national disease registers.
The ABS views the SLCD as an investment in the future, as the value of the dataset will grow over time as more data is added. The SLCD would enable us to study, for example:
While the Census is the largest collection operation conducted by the ABS, it is just one part of the picture of Australia provided by the ABS, as part of the national statistical service.
For me, a highlight of 2005–06 was the culmination of celebrations to mark the ABS centenary with an event at ABS House in Canberra on 8 December 2005. The Treasurer, the Hon. Peter Costello, was the keynote speaker at this event and commented on the strong values that the ABS has been true to over the past one hundred years, achieving a consistently high level of integrity, professionalism and relevance, whilst maintaining the confidentiality of data provided to us.
I felt privileged to be Statistician at this time, when the achievements of ABS were widely recognised, and would like to formally acknowledge that the successes we have obtained over the past one hundred years are due to the efforts of many people, not just the current staff.
Another important part of the ABS centenary celebrations was the release of the ABS history book, Informing a nation: The evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, on 31 October 2005. This publication chronicles the development of the ABS, from the establishment of the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics in 1905, to the current organisation, one hundred years later. It describes how the ABS has underpinned national progress through professional and committed people, who have measured and surveyed the growing nation.
In the 2005–06 Australian Government Budget, the ABS received additional funding of $57.2 million over four years to upgrade official statistics, and for enhancements to the Census of Population and Housing. A further $19.0 million was provided for the Census Time Capsule project. In 2005–06, there were many successful outcomes from this additional funding, including the development of the eCensus facility and the inclusion of additional questions in the Census.
Other achievements resulting from this additional funding include:
The release of the 2006 Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification in February 2006 marked a major achievement, and was four months ahead of schedule. This classification will be used in the 2006 Census, and gradually implemented into a range of collections. A prerequisite for this was to attribute the new classification to every business on the Australian Business Register. This was successfully completed by the Australian Taxation Office, again ahead of schedule. We are very grateful for their support. The resources to enable the implementation were part of the additional funding mentioned above. In addition, the ABS completed development work on the 2006 Australia and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations, which will also be used in the 2006 Census.
In 2005–06, the ABS has worked hard to engage with users and producers of statistics. The need for improvements in this area was one of the key conclusions of the review into our strategic positioning (see next section on strategic developments for more information). It is pleasing to hear a number of positive comments in recent times about the level of engagement by the ABS.
Another conclusion of the review was the need for the ABS to take a stronger statistical leadership role. I was pleased to see the support for this because such support is essential if we are to succeed in our efforts to lead Australia's statistical system, and improve and expand the information available for decision making, regardless of its source.
We made some changes to the structure of the ABS, to better position ourselves to perform this statistical leadership role. These changes included establishing a National Statistical Service Leadership Branch, as well as appointing two additional senior executives in the statistical output areas. Some of the activities related to advancing the national statistical service were:
An address coder will be developed primarily using the Geographic National Address File (GNAF) database produced by the Public Sector Mapping Agency. A version of this address coder has been made available publicly and will enable the data custodians to code their datasets on the same basis. As part of our statistical leadership responsibility, we will support data custodians to undertake this coding and to include key statistical outputs in the set of available regional statistics.
Other achievements I would like to highlight for 2005–06 include the release of the Information and Communications Technology satellite account, the release of additional information on labour force participation, the release of new data on Indigenous Australians' labour force participation and health, and the establishment of a unit, with funding support from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, to work on migrant statistics.
The ABS has continued to be an active contributor to the international statistical community by providing assistance to a range of countries, and contributing to statistical developments in international forums. This involvement enables the ABS to make improvements to Australian statistics, learning through discussions with our peers in other National Statistical Organisations. The ABS has contributed to discussions on a range of international standards, frameworks and methodologies, ensuring that they reflect Australian user interest. This work is vital for ensuring international comparability of statistics. Such comparisons are increasingly being used for policy analysis and other purposes.
The ABS provides support for the statistical systems of a number of developing countries. In 2005–06, one highlight in this area was the commencement of a program in the South Pacific to support better planning. This work is being conducted jointly with the Secretariat of Pacific Communities. We also extended a Memorandum of Understanding with the Badan Pusat Statistik – Statistics Indonesia (BPS), which will see us provide technical capacity building in a range of high priority areas including labour force statistics and information technology strategy. Both projects are assisted by funding support from AusAID.
In March 2006, ABS staff overwhelmingly supported the new ABS Certified Agreement, with 83% of those who voted supporting the agreement. I felt that the agreement balanced the needs of the organisation, whilst ensuring that the conditions of employment on offer to employees are both fair and flexible. I was very pleased with the support it received.
The ABS is now well placed to attract and retain the skilled staff needed to meet our objectives. In 2005–06, we have been looking at the additional steps that can be taken to ensure that the ABS has the people and skills needed for the coming years, including considering the issues of 'workforce shaping'. An extensive training program is in place to assist staff in developing their skills. This includes the work of the National Statistical Training Institute, which has been developing a range of courses on statistical skills.
To better meet the challenges ahead, we undertook a restructure of some areas of the ABS, creating a new Services Group, which brings together the Corporate Services Division and Technology Services Division. The head of the Services Group is also responsible for the new National Statistical Service Leadership Branch and the Financial Management area. Having all these together in one group will better position the ABS for advancing and implementing key business strategies, as well as providing rationalisation of some activities that were previously undertaken in two Divisions.
For 2005–06, the operating result was a small surplus. Our cash position remained sound. The operating surplus is somewhat smaller than we anticipated because we only became aware of a new interpretation of an accounting standard on property operating expenses towards the end of the year.
A focus for the next year will be to continue to build upon our response to the messages from the review of our strategic positioning conducted by the Allen Consulting Group (ACG), which I mentioned earlier. That review had found that the ABS is highly respected for its credibility, impartiality, independence and the quality of its work and outputs, and stakeholders do not want that to change. However, it also found that the ABS needed to respond better to changes in the external environment, as the way ABS key clients require and use information has changed. We were encouraged that clients want the ABS to succeed. We have taken steps, such as those described above, to more effectively engage with users and these will continue to be extended, as will initiatives to develop the ABS' leadership role for statistical work undertaken outside its organisational boundaries.
In December 2005, I launched a revised Corporate Plan for the ABS. This plan sets out the values and objectives that will guide our work in coming years. It was the result of a year long process to review the previous Corporate Plan, and to consult with management, other ABS staff and some external stakeholders, including members of the Australian Statistics Advisory Council (ASAC), on the directions and challenges for the ABS. The new Corporate Plan does not represent a 'rewrite' of the previous Corporate Plan, but rather changes in emphases for the ABS in the light of experience gained over the last five years, and the evolving environment in which we operate. It picks up many of the themes from the strategic review by the ACG.
The new Corporate Plan was also an opportunity to reflect a slight but important change in the focus of the ABS, with the mission statement now referring to the ABS 'leading' rather than 'providing' a National Statistical Service. This acknowledges the key legislated role of the ABS in providing statistical leadership across government. It reflects the role we want to play, and the role our key stakeholders want us to play.
The ABS corporate values provide a vital foundation for the work of the ABS. In the new Corporate Plan, an additional value of 'service' has been added. This does not reflect a change in behaviour, but an articulation of a value that already exists.
There was little change to the objectives for the ABS in the new Corporate Plan. However, there were more substantial changes to the strategies that underpin those objectives. These include the strategies to advance Australia's statistical system. The next section of this summary provides a discussion of some of these strategic directions.
Both the ABS' Corporate Plan and Forward Work Program are available to the public on the ABS web site.
(a) STATISTICAL LEADERSHIP
The ABS has a responsibility for the coordination of official statistics. It is fair to say that, over its history since the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975 was passed, the ABS has struggled to decide how to best fulfil this responsibility. The need for the ABS to take a leadership role is becoming clearer and is likely to become more so in the future. Not surprisingly, this has become more apparent at the same time as the amount of statistical activity outside the ABS has increased. Some other agencies do conduct sample surveys from time to time. But, most importantly, many Australian and state government agencies are custodians of administrative data that are potentially a very valuable source of statistics. Australia is evolving towards a National Statistical Service where the ABS is only one of the providers, albeit a very important one.
There is support for the ABS taking a leadership role in the development of national statistics. It is my view that the reasons for this are:
One of the most important is the ABS' National Data Network initiative. The Network will create a distributed library of data holdings relevant to policy analysis and research. These data holdings will remain with their custodian organisations. Whilst data will be held by each custodian, the National Data Network will provide a complete catalogue of available data sources to allow users to easily search for, and access data holdings which have been published. In effect, it will provide a portal to official statistics.
The National Data Network will also provide access to a range of services to support the creation, management, integration and analysis of data.
(b) DATA SOURCES AND COLLECTION
The way we collect data is changing rapidly, both in the technology available to assist in collection, and in the demand on potential respondents – it will be necessary to carefully manage the load on those asked to provide information, and use existing sources of data where possible. As a result, there will be changes in the way ABS collects data. Until the 1950s, most statistics were collected through censuses or from administrative systems such as the Customs system for international trade data or the registration systems to capture births, deaths and marriages data. Sample surveys, introduced midway through the last century, have led to an incredible increase in the amount of statistical information available, particularly on social topics.
Whilst sample surveys will continue to be the main source for official statistics, data from administrative systems are making something of a comeback as a source for statistics. With the evolution of computer technology, data from a range of administrative and transactional data bases are now more readily available. In the past, the ABS would normally have been expected to produce official statistics based on those systems, but this is no longer the case – administering agencies are often best placed to compile the statistics themselves but the ABS can provide a useful leadership and support role, as part of supporting the National Statistical Service, discussed above.
(c) DATA ANALYSIS AND RELEASE
Along with changes to how we collect data, there are changes in how we analyse and release data. While it is only a decade since we first established the ABS website, it is now (apart from information provided through the media) the way that most statistical users obtain ABS data. The Internet enables provision of 'self-help' facilities, which allow users to generate more of their own statistical outputs without relying on the services of ABS staff. One important 'self help' initiative is the ABS' Remote Access Data Laboratory™ (RADL™). This facility enables registered users to submit statistical processing requests directly to the ABS' microdata bases. It also enforces a range of confidentiality checks, supported by manual checks and audits to ensure data remains confidential. The release of 2006 Census of Population and Housing data will also make use of new facilities to give users more extensive access to data, while protecting confidentiality.
More generally, our sophisticated users are looking for improved access to microdata for research and policy analysis purposes. While fully understanding this need and trying to support it, the ABS will continue to ensure that it maintains the trust and confidence of respondents. Without that trust, cooperation in our surveys would be much lower and the quality of the resulting statistics would suffer. This involves finding a continuing balance. While our legislation sets limits on disclosure, it may not always be sensible to go to the limits it allows. This is an issue being debated internationally by national statistical offices, and the ABS has taken a leadership role in trying to get to an agreed position. More sophisticated ways of supporting the research community can be expected.
The ability to link datasets has been increasing, and this can make them much richer for statistical purposes as, for example, with the Census Data Enhancement project discussed earlier. The Business Longitudinal Database is another important example. Our sister agencies in many other countries have started down this path of using linked data sets for statistical purposes. We have been more careful. There are privacy issues that need to be carefully managed, as we would not do anything that would threaten the confidentiality of those that provided the data, nor are we allowed to by law. Also, we do not want to go further than the Australian public would regard as reasonable. However, the potential benefits are significant, so linked data sets are definitely a development worth pursuing.
THE YEAR AHEAD
I see the year ahead as one in which there will be considerable achievements, at a time when the ABS continues to energise its leadership role for the National Statistical Service.
In 2006–07, the ABS will be collecting and processing data from the 2006 Census of Population and Housing, to update population estimates by May 2007. The first release of detailed Census results is expected in June 2007. We will also be collecting and processing data from the 2005–06 Agricultural Census, which also includes a range of data items of relevance to environmental analysis. These major collections will provide valuable information about Australia.
We will continue working on the statistical developments funded through the 2005–06 Australian Government Budget. The most notable will be the upgrades to macroeconomic statistics to meet the new international standards.
Some other areas that we will be focusing on in the coming year include:
We will need to balance the increase in demand for detailed data with the possibility of increasing concern about privacy issues. This is a tension that has to be managed carefully, and we will continue to work closely with the Privacy Commissioners in reaching those judgements. Although our legislation provides excellent protection of the confidentiality of information provided to us, public perceptions may be different and it is perceptions that drive the behaviour of our respondents and clients.
One of our important goals is to manage reporting load. There may be opportunities to work with other agencies to facilitate the electronic reporting of data on a consistent basis. This is likely to be a focus of attention in the coming year.
The ABS will continue to be an active contributor to official statistics internationally. This will assist in improving the comparability of statistics for Australia with those of other countries, providing users with a context for Australian figures.
The achievements outlined in this summary, as well as the ongoing production of our other statistics, would not be possible without the cooperation of those businesses and households that provide data. I would like to thank the Australian public for their continued cooperation, not just with the five-yearly population census, but with the range of other surveys conducted by the ABS throughout the year.
Also of great value to the ABS in pursuing the activities described is the assistance of the Australian Statistics Advisory Council (ASAC), under the Chairpersonship of Professor Sandra Harding, who provide valuable feedback on the ABS work program and related issues. I would particularly like to express my appreciation to Mr Wayne Jackson, who resigned from ASAC on his retirement from FaCSIA, and to Dr Peter Dawkins, who also resigned during the past year. The views of ASAC members, as well as all the other participants in the wide variety of advisory groups, help ensure that the ABS work program remains relevant and meets priority needs for statistics.
Professor Harding has indicated that she will not be seeking reappointment as Chair of ASAC when her term finishes following the November 2006 meeting. ASAC has been particularly helpful to us during the five years of her stewardship. I would like to thank her most sincerely for her excellent contribution to official statistics.
These many achievements I have described are due to the commitment and contributions of ABS staff. I was very pleased that the valuable contribution of a member of the ABS staff, Paul McCarthy, was recognised with a Public Service Medal in the 2006 Queen's Birthday honours.
During the last year, we have received great support from the Australian Government. An important element is allowing us to do our job with the independence required of a National Statistical Office. We have also had budgetary assistance to allow us to enhance Australia's set of official statistics. In addition, the Treasurer and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer have provided great support by promoting our work, particularly that relating to the 2006 Census.
This will be my last Annual Report. I must say it is a great privilege to lead an organisation like the ABS, particularly in a year that encompasses its centenary. The ABS has a fine history and, I believe, has served Australia well. It plays a vital role in an Australian democracy – not just because it provides information that provides a mirror on society – but because that information is trusted.