The Australian Statistics Advisory Council (ASAC) has a distinguished record as an independent source of advice to the ABS and its responsible Minister on Australia’s statistics and emerging needs and priorities. Geoff Allen AM was ASAC Chairperson for a decade prior to my recent appointment. That includes just over half the period covered by this annual report. At the outset, therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to record the Council’s deep appreciation for Geoff Allen’s leadership and for his commitment to the institution and its mission.
During the past year, ASAC met once under Geoff’s chairmanship and once under my own. The Council’s discussions covered a range of topics, but there was a particular focus on the 2016 Census and resulting actions, developments in the important area of data integration, and the challenges of statistical prioritisation under budgetary pressure.
As detailed in this report, while the quality of the data from the Census has proven to be comparable to that of previous Censuses, the digital failure on Census night and prior issues around the retention of personal information were of significant public and political concern. The Council discussed with the ABS the importance of its public engagement activities to the rebuilding of trust, and of it taking on board governance and other lessons from last year’s events, including recommendations from subsequent independent reviews. The ABS is to be commended for the extent and decisiveness of its response.
Australia lags other countries, and notably our close neighbour New Zealand, in its capacity to access and connect data from different sources that are jointly relevant to key areas of policy development or service delivery. This has been partly a product of our federal system of government, partly a matter of ‘territory’, but also reflective of legitimate concerns about privacy. As the opportunity cost of fragmented data systems has become more apparent, support has grown in a number of jurisdictions for ‘joined up’ data that is both more accessible and fit for purpose, while recognising legitimate community concerns. A number of welcome initiatives have commenced or are in train. A key one at the Commonwealth level, aptly titled ‘Data Integration Partnership for Australia (DIPA)’, represents the culmination of work by the ABS over a number of years, with strong support from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The recent Productivity Commission inquiry into Data Availability and Use has further highlighted the importance of sharing data for individuals’ right to know, but also for the potential economic benefits. Its recommendations are far reaching, including the creation of new national institutional arrangements. Effective implementation will be key. Making effective use of the ABS and other existing expert bodies will be crucial to this. Equally, proposed ‘national interest data sets’ would benefit from groundwork already conducted by the ABS, with encouragement from the Council, on ‘Essential Statistical Assets for Australia’.
Australia’s society and economy are changing at an unprecedented pace. Capturing such changes in a systematic way through national statistical collections will be increasingly valuable both to government and the community. While budgetary constraints are necessary in this area, as in others, the Council is concerned that ongoing reductions in the ABS appropriation are placing key statistical assets in jeopardy. As the American economist William Baumol famously demonstrated in his theory of ‘cost disease’, inherent limits on productivity gains for certain public services mean that at some point quality inevitably falls with funding. It is important that this be recognised and addressed.
I sincerely thank Council members for their contributions over the past year, and the secretariat for its support for the Council and for me personally since my appointment.
Professor Gary Banks AO