1001.0 - Australian Bureau of Statistics -- Annual Report, 2007-08  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 05/12/2008   
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Contents >> Section III - Special Articles >> Chapter 3 - Australia’s National Statistical Service in the 21st Century


The ABS has a proud history of over 100 years of measuring the progress of the nation1. It is a scoreboard for Australia—a corner stone of our democracy. The ABS is respected for its independence, impartiality, integrity and the quality of work and outputs. Working closely with the states and territories has been a feature of the bureau since its establishment in 1905, with Integration Agreements continuing to be in place, resulting in the ABS being responsible for state and territory statistical requirements, in addition to those of the Commonwealth. The ABS is also an active and highly regarded contributor to the international statistical community, particularly within the Asia-Pacific region.

The ABS faces many challenges in what is a significantly changing world with increasing measurement complexity. Many of these were raised in a 2004 review commissioned by the ABS 2. Examples include:

  • There are a number of broad trends in society and the economy driving changes in the nature of the statistical environment. These involve shifts in how we live our lives, the ways our society and economy are structured and how we are governed. The trends are causing changes in both the demand for, and supply of, data.

  • More than ever before, today’s world is filled—and fuelled—by information. Individual citizens, businesses and their governments are using more information, and increasingly sophisticated information, as the basis for their decisions. Most significant for the ABS is the increase in the demand of government agencies for statistical data and services. Governments are seeking more and more highly developed information to support the delivery of better quality, better targeted programs and services to the public. The demands are also for more timely information to support the faster decision-making expected of governments.

  • Government agencies and other users are looking to use different types of data for specific applications, such as longitudinal panel data, micro-level and local geographic data, subjective data and data that can measure intangibles. There are demands for making better use of existing information—particularly by linking databases to provide more information about people, businesses or places. Linking can produce richer, more detailed data that add depth and breadth to our understanding of complex policy problems and other issues.

  • The focus of private companies tends to be on producing market oriented information. However, the private sector is also moving into areas that have been the traditional preserve of the ABS. A growing number of private companies and research organisations offer economic, social and spatial data and value added services aimed at particular market sectors. As a result, the marketplace for statistical information is broad, continuing to widen and increase in complexity. The ABS remains the key player, but nevertheless only one of many players.

  • Technological developments promise to make using and sharing data much easier and more affordable. New technologies also create new possibilities for the way that data are collected, presented and distributed.

  • There is growing public awareness about privacy issues and concerns the linking of data could be a threat to individuals’ privacy. This issue will need to be managed carefully so as not to reduce public trust in the way that governments use information.

    The starting point for considering the national statistical service in the 21st century must be an assessment of how the ABS has begun to respond to changes in its environment that have emerged over recent times or are on the immediate horizon. In the 1988–89 ABS Annual Report, the article A quart out of a pint pot concluded that in the period since the ABS became a statutory authority with the passing of the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975, the ABS had made significant advances in terms of the range, timeliness, and quality of its statistical products and services on a resource base that had been essentially static. In other words, it was getting ‘a quart out of a pint pot’.

    A subsequent article, The pint pot revisited, in the 1996–97 ABS Annual Report found the performance of the ABS had continued to improve significantly, enabling it to better fulfil its mission. Many of the improvements were possible because of the increased productivity, in particular through the application of information and communication technology. Others were achieved with a relatively small amount of additional budget and other external funding. The article concluded the ABS was continuing to extract a ‘quart’ or more of statistical output out of a ‘pint pot’ of resource.

    This article reports on continuing productivity gains and realignment of existing resources within the ABS over the past decade, in the context of the important leadership role the ABS has to play in effective, efficient and integrated statistical arrangements for the nation.



    The NSS is the community of government agencies, led by the ABS as Australia’s national statistical organisation, building a rich statistical picture for a better informed Australia. Conceptually, the NSS is:

  • the sum of an agreed set of statistical frameworks, principles, policies and data resources developed by, or available to, government agencies within Australia that are used, or could be used, to produce official statistics, together with the skills and capabilities of the people involved, and

  • underpinned by a set of shared values and associated behaviours that shape and sustain the integrity and objectivity of official statistics and provide governments, markets, businesses and communities with confidence to trust, both as providers and users, the official statistics produced within the NSS.


    The objectives of the NSS are to:

  • deliver a high quality, up-to-date, comprehensive and coherent statistical picture of the economy, society and the environment to assist and encourage informed decision making, research and discussion within governments and the wider community

  • provide a world class official statistical service that retains the confidence and trust of the Australian society as both providers to, and users of, the resultant official statistics

  • maximise the use, for official statistical purposes, of data available within government administrative systems by government agencies

  • minimise the burden of statistical reporting at all levels of the Australian community, and

  • document and retain, as an enduring national resource, key statistical outputs and their underlying data sources.


    The NSS provides trusted statistics to answer the questions that are important to Australians, their families and their communities. It enables Australians to assess the performance of their governments and to hold them accountable for outcomes. The NSS provides the foundation for evidence-based policy and, through feedback, drives innovation in service delivery to better meet the needs of all Australians, with the result of a better life through better public and private decisions.

    The NSS offers producers of official statistics a more cost effective approach for producing statistics in line with best practice to meet their own information needs, and the needs of others, and provides them with access to other statistical information they need from other producers in the NSS.

    The NSS will enable Australia to realise the full potential of its investment in statistical resources by overcoming institutional and jurisdictional fragmentation. Such fragmentation adds costs through duplication and misdirected effort, increases provider load on businesses and households, makes finding relevant statistics difficult, and reduces the usefulness of statistics through a lack of comparability.


    As it currently exists, the NSS is nowhere near meeting its full potential. The existing NSS activities could be substantially improved, and the NSS could be significantly expanded to encompass a greater range of current and future statistical activities of government. To realise this full potential, there is an imperative to further develop a community of government agencies involved in official statistical activities that progressively:

  • develops, conducts and disseminates official statistics on the basis of shared values, principles and policies

  • protects individual respondent data, as required by legislation, through these shared values, principles and policies

  • maximises comparability of official statistical sources by shaping and adopting national (and where appropriate international) statistical standards, such as concepts, classifications, methods, metadata and data definitions

  • makes strategic use of existing information held within government administrations for statistical purposes rather than treating it as a secondary resource

  • builds a community of professional statistical staff working across all levels of government by providing access to appropriate mechanisms, to share their knowledge and experience; as is providing appropriate professional development opportunities

  • minimises the overall investment required to support the NSS by facilitating the availability and accessibility of the information resources of the NSS by way of shared technical statistical infrastructure, and

  • manages and maintains Australia’s key official statistical resources, as an enduring national resource, by developing appropriate archival mechanisms for all official statistical data produced by governments.


    The ABS is well positioned to lead the NSS given that it has:

  • a legislative mandate to do so

  • the necessary skills, expertise and capability

  • as its core activity, a strong track record of more than 100 years of providing high quality statistics

  • the necessary values, especially integrity and independence

  • the trust of the Australian community

  • a commitment to provide access for all, and

  • agreement by governments (including senior government officials) and the wider community that the ABS should play this leading role.


    Over the last three decades, the ABS has made significant organisational, technological and methodological changes that have given rise to significant productivity savings. These savings have been used to meet successive government efficiency dividends, fund pay rises, expand the ABS work program, and invest in enabling technologies. Unfortunately, similar levels of productivity savings are not likely in the future, given the degree of functional specialisation already in place, and the effective use being made of information and communications technologies within the ABS. As the economy, society and environment are growing and becoming increasingly complex to measure, additional funding will be needed just to maintain the statistical quality standards, and to deal with the increasing collection costs, particularly for households surveys.

    This complexity, together with an additional 2% efficiency dividend applied by government from the 2008–09 financial year, has resulted in $21.8m in cuts to the ABS work program for 2008–09, so the ABS can operate within its appropriation. While these cuts represent only about 8% of the ABS 2008–09 budget appropriation, the small scale of most ABS activities has resulted in a range of statistics being affected—some were discontinued, others significantly reduced. There was a strong adverse reaction to the cuts from within government itself and from key users of statistics. The media has also expressed concerns the reduction to the ABS work program runs counter to an increased focus on ‘evidence-based’ policy and quantitative evaluation of government service delivery.

    If the ABS is unable to secure additional funding for future years, cuts of a similar order to those made for 2008–09 will be necessary. Given this situation, the basis for determining ongoing funding for the ABS is being reviewed. The ABS is also seeking closer, up-front attention to be given to the data needs of new government programs, to ensure the provisions made for the statistical activities of the ABS, and the agencies concerned, are both adequate and appropriately coordinated.


    The ABS budget of around $300m a year represents about one-eighth-of-one-percent of the federal budget and about $14 per Australian each year. It peaks in the years around the five yearly national Census of Population and Housing, as well as the years immediately before and after the ‘Census night’. While there has been some additional funding provided to the ABS from government budget decisions over the past decade, in real terms the ABS funding has declined by 2% overall between 1998–99 and 2008–09 despite the substantially increased scale and complexity of economic, social and environmental concerns.

    In addition, over the last decade Australia’s population has increased by about 14%, the labour force by about 19%, gross domestic product (in volume terms) by about 42% and domestic final demand (in volume terms) by about 55%.

    As in the previous two decades, the last decade has seen major improvements to the range of ABS outputs and services. These have been primarily funded internally and have been achieved throughthe ABS making productivity improvements and doing more with less.


    The annual ABS planning cycle involves careful consideration of relative statistical priorities and competing resource priorities, with particular attention to:

  • prospective total resources available to the ABS within a four-year period

  • input from user consultations

  • the extent to which particular statistical activities continue to be undertaken in preference to other new work sought by users

  • the contribution statistical activities make to achieving National Statistical Service objectives

  • the potential availability of new funding, including user funding where appropriate, for various initiatives proposed

  • the cost imposed on respondents to collections, in terms of time and effort productivity gains, which have been achieved or might be possible in the future, and

  • resources spent on statistical versus non-statistical work.

    Proposals are considered by ABS management, generally following consultation with major users. Aspects of the proposed forward work program and resource estimates that emerge are considered by the Australian Statistics Advisory Council and then finalised in light of their advice.


    The principal reforms and developments over the last decade include the following:

    A new approach to household survey planning, development and processing (2000)

    Household Survey Centres were formed to focus on the specialist survey statistician role of improving the quality of all aspects of survey design, development, enumeration and processing, to provide more timely, relevant and reliable outputs. National Statistical Centres were formed to provide statistical leadership internally and externally, for fields of statistics, including non-ABS data sources.

    The Business Statistics Innovation Program (2002–05)

    Key improvements were made to the way the ABS works with providers of business survey information. Significant organisational change and increased functional specialisation set the stage for the adoption of new methodologies and processing technologies. National Statistical Centres were also formed to provide statistical leadership in various fields.

    Annual Integrated Collections (2006–08)

    An integrated program was established for planning and conducting industry surveys, providing efficiencies in the way scarce industry survey resources are allocated.

    Development of the environment statistics program

    This program has a small amount of funding provided through a combination of realigned ABS resources, some government funding and some funding from partner organisations. Since its inception in the early 1990s, it has made significant progress in several areas, particularly in economic environmental accounting for water and minerals (see following section on New and improved outputs), but there is a significant amount of work still to be carried out.

    Analysis of data

    Increased analytical work over the last decade has enabled the ABS to: better understand the uses and users of its statistics; and engage analytical, research and policy stakeholders in government, academia and the broader community, about statistical directions and priorities (see section on New and improved outputs).

    Confidentialised unit record files3

    Over and above the statistical outputs generated by the ABS from survey data, significant additional analytical value has been realised by making confidentialised unit record level files available to researchers, for both basic research and for direct policy relevant research. Most ABS household surveys are now available as Confidentialised Unit Record Files (CURFs) in both a ‘basic’ form, as well as an ‘expanded’ form, through a remote access data laboratory facility (RADL) (see section on Increased access and use).

    Electronic dissemination and free access to statistics via the ABS website

    The ABS website was established in 1995. Since then, the ABS has progressively replaced paper publications as the principal way in which users access ABS statistics. From December 2005, nearly all ABS statistical outputs have been available free-of-charge from the ABS website, resulting in a dramatic increase in the range and accessibility of statistics (see section on Increased access and use).

    Rationalisation and realignment

    To enable increased attention for environment statistics, measures of population wellbeing, and statistics on the ‘new economy’, the ABS has reduced the sample sizes of some surveys, and changed the content and frequency of other surveys (see section on Increased access and use).


    To best meet Australia’s statistical needs in an environment of societal change and increasing complexity, the ABS has invested significantly in improving the quality and relevance of its statistics and services. Major areas of improvement have been the following:

    New and improved statistical methodologies, and more integration of statistical processes and datasets

    Of note are developments in: the integrated business characteristics strategy, which is providing for point-in-time and longitudinal data analysis; the consumer price index (CPI), including spatial indices and computer price indices; labour force statistics, in particular through the use of composite estimation techniques; methodological approaches such as seasonal adjustment; production of household estimates in addition to person level estimates; and time series analysis of recompiled historical surveys.

    Other areas in which new and improved statistical methodologies have been developed include: retail and wholesale margins; industry and agriculture statistics; statistics for not-for-profit institutions; the house price index; pay setting methods statistics; the Population Census; overseas migration and population estimates; and surveys of
    income and housing.

    Increased visibility of quality measures and quality information about ABS statistics

    Across many fields of statistics there has been significant progress in developing and implementing improved indicators of quality. These indicators promote and contribute to more informed and appropriate use of statistics. There has been a marked increase in the publication of measures such as relative standard errors and quality declarations.


    The ABS has received a small amount of funding from government and users to enable it to respond to emerging environmental, social and economic issues. The desire to bring together different sets of information and different data perspectives is also driving developments within the ABS. An increased emphasis on whole-of-government initiatives and cooperation between levels of government is another change to which the ABS is responding. However, the bulk of new statistical activity, particularly the development of related infrastructure and methodologies, has been achieved within existing ABS resources through ongoing productivity improvements and use of internal reinvestment mechanisms.


    Key developments have included: economic environmental accounting for water and minerals; filling information gaps on natural resource management (externally funded), salinity, water use on farms, environmental protection expenditure, agricultural commodities, energy supply survey and use, and domestic water use; regional environmental outputs and products; extensive use of administrative data to supplement or expand the range of environmental statistics without increasing the reporting burden on business or community. As previously noted, there is still considerable work to be done in the environment area to provide information necessary for decision making purposes.

    Indigenous statistics

    There has been significant expansion to the breadth of Indigenous statistics produced by the ABS, and to related analysis. Following the first National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey in 1994, a regular program of surveys was established starting with a 2001 supplement to the National Health Survey. Since then, regular Indigenous surveys are included in the program every three years, alternating between a broad social survey and a survey focusing on health. Improvements have included the development of appropriate protocols and procedures for locating and interviewing Indigenous people.

    Indigenous enumeration strategies have also been developed for use in the Census and these are reviewed and improved between censuses. Considerable work has also been done on understanding the quality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths statistics, and to work with jurisdictions to improve recording of status. Methodologies for calculation of some aspects of Indigenous life expectancy have also been improved, and work continues to ensure the available measures are of the best possible quality. Annual experimental estimates of Indigenous labour force participation have also been developed.

    Social and community wellbeing

    The range of social statistics has expanded greatly over the decade, including youth and children statistics, culture, leisure and sport statistics, a new general social survey, and the 2005 personal safety survey (the latter being externally funded). The ABS has also been involved in international projects such as development of a manual for conduct of crime victims surveys.

    National Accounts

    Extensive upgrading of the national accounts infrastructure has occurred, including: introduction of updated statistical standards, with some funding from the 2005–06 budget; chain volume estimates; annual supply-use tables; upgraded capital stock and multi-factor productivity statistics. This provides a solid base for increased analytical work, particularly in the areas of productivity statistics and satellite accounts. User funding has helped make this possible, particularly work in relation to the tourism and not-for-profit sectors.

    Labour statistics

    New outputs include: statistics on the nature and dynamics of the Australian Labour Market, including barriers and incentives to labour force participation, retirement and retirement intentions, and work related injuries; and CURFs for the labour mobility survey, and the survey of employee earnings and benefits and trade union membership. A new, partially externally funded survey of employment arrangements and superannuation was conducted in 2000 and again in 2006, with additional information collected in 2006 on work and family balance and retirement and retirement intentions. Improvements include: the introduction of new technologies and sample methodologies; development of experimental Indigenous estimates; enhancements to the presentation of youth data; enhancement of seasonally adjusted and trend estimates; improvements in the quality of regional estimates through the adoption of regional benchmarks; improved family estimation methodology; and production of annual measures of labour underemployment and underutilisation.

    Industry and business

    This field has been expanded significantly, including the introduction of Quarterly Business Indicators supplementing the Quarterly National Accounts. There have been significant improvements to counts of businesses. Business characteristics data, including innovation, information technology (IT) use and entrepreneurship are now collected regularly. For example, the Business Longitudinal Database has been established and comprises characteristics and financial data sourced from the first Business Characteristics Survey, Australian Taxation Office administrative data (including BAS and BIT data), as well as data on exports and imports from the Australian Customs Service.

    New economy statistics

    New work and research covers the following: globalisation, foreign affiliates trade in services and information on direct Australian investment abroad; information on use of information technology by government and households, including in the areas of broadband and electronic commerce; and development of indicators of innovation in Australian industry. While there has been some budget and external funding, much of the developmental work has been funded through savings and realignment initiatives within the ABS.

    Improving the statistical value of administrative data

    The ABS is increasingly collaborating with other agencies at both the federal and state/territory levels to develop the statistical value of their administrative data holdings, improve data comparability, and enhance data access. This work will progress the National Statistical Service, and is also supporting the expansion of some statistical fields, such as rural and regional data. Integration across ABS and non-ABS statistical collections, and administrative systems, has been pursued as opportunities have arisen and resources have permitted. Partnerships with the Australian Taxation Office, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, the Australian Customs Service and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship have enhanced the quality and use of an expanding range of statistics derived from administrative sources, and have contributed to better management of the reporting load on citizens and business while meeting the growing statistical needs of the nation.

    Improvements in geographical information

    The major development in geography over the past 10 years has been the move to a mesh block based geography4, including the new mesh block based Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS). The ASGS is to replace the Australian Standard Geographical Classification for the 2011 Census of Population and Housing5. Technology has also been developed and maintained to code statistics to the smaller areas (Geocoded National Address File (GNAF) based address coder). For example, attaching mesh block codes to deaths data has commenced, enabling location related factors to be analysed. As well as having significant implications for census and other statistical programs, this statistical geography infrastructure is a critical and timely investment in supporting analysis and decision making around policy areas, such as strengthening communities, water, the environment and social and physical infrastructure development.

    Improvements in quality and range of state, regional and rural data

    Improvements include: commencement of a new measure of Gross State Product, which has led to more credible national accounts than in previous decades; introduction of regional benchmarks in the Labour Force survey to improve regional estimates; and development of National Regional Profiles, which complement Census Community Profiles.

    Indicator frameworks

    Several state and territory governments have developed statistical indicator frameworks, with the active involvement of the ABS. These frameworks have prompted discussion about the potential for greater use to be made by the ABS of government administrative data as a source of statistics.

    New and improved analytical outputs

    Measures of Australia’s Progress (cat. no. 1370.0)

    This publication integrates statistical data from across the national statistical system, to paint a picture of national progress over the last decade. It was first published in 2002, and then again in 2004 and 2006.

    Improved analysis of income and wealth data

    The ABS recompiled its time series of household income estimates from the mid 1990s, to better reflect new international standards, including a new focus on household level measures, and to standardise estimation methodologies across time.

    From 2003–04, the ABS began the collection of comprehensive household wealth data, together with household income and expenditure data, to allow for improved analysis of the level and distribution of household economic resources. Analysis of this data will provide a better understanding of the factors affecting those people with low levels of consumption.

    New experimental measures of household income

    New household level imputed rent estimates were published in 2008, to support a broader comparison of the economic wellbeing of owner-occupier households and their social and economic circumstances relative to other households.

    Improved analytical tools

    Greater use has been made of ABS data to model and derive statistical products and measures such as the Socioeconomic Indexes for Areas.

    Improvements to ‘Australian Social Trends’ (cat. no. 4102.0)

    Improvements have been achieved by combining internal and external data, greater analysis, and provision of more detailed data to users.

    A biennial production of a compendium of statistics about Indigenous Australians

    Since the first release in 1997, six editions of The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (cat. no. 4704.0) have been produced in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.


    Snapshots are an expanded range of short analytical publications, which bring together data from different sources on specific topics, including different health priority areas, and associated risk factors.

    Census data enhancement

    Starting with data from the 2006 Census, work has begun to bring together a 5% sample of de-identified census data with migration, deaths and labour force data, in order to test the compatibility of data and identify key patterns in the combined data. Analysis, through specific quality studies, will help inform future strategies for improving data quality, for example, in Indigenous deaths statistics. Development of a longitudinal census data set is of particular interest for future research into factors influencing, over time, critical areas, such as education, employment and family outcomes in the community.

    Enhanced analysis and reports on the Business Longitudinal Database

    Although very new, the Business Longitudinal Databasehas already been used for analytical input to the 2008 Review of the National Innovation System and will increasingly be used in industry and economic policy development.

    Experimental Estimates of Industry Multi-factor Productivity (cat. no. 5260.0.55.001)

    This publication, released in 2007, contains estimates of multi-factor productivity growth for 12 market sector industries of the Australian economy from 1985–86 to 2006–07.

    Improvements and developments in ABS price indexes

    Improvements to ABS price indexes include the refinement of the methodology underpinning the House Price Index, and the development of capability to establish new price indexes.



    A number of statistical and conceptual classifications have been reviewed and redeveloped to ensure the continuing relevance of both the classifications and statistics based on them. In particular, this has included the Australian and New Zealand Standard Industry Classification, the Standard Economic Sectoral Classification of Australia, the Australian Standard Geographical Classification, the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations, and the Australian Standard Offence Classification.

    In addition, the System of National Accounts and Balance of Payments Manual, representing international standards for macroeconomics, have been revised, with the ABS as a key contributor.

    The past decade has also seen the development of a number of new conceptual frameworks and classifications:

    Household Income Statistics

    In 1996, the ABS organised the first meeting of the International Expert Group on Household Income Statistics (The Canberra Group). The recommendations of this group were incorporated into a substantial revision, in December 2003, of the international standards for these statistics promulgated by the International Labour Organisation.

    ‘Measuring Wellbeing: Frameworks for Australian Social Statistics’ (cat. no. 4160.0)

    Released by the ABS in 2001, this publication describes the conceptual organisation of social statistics, the various conceptual models used in the nine main areas of social concern, along with a range of issues for consideration in the analysis of these areas of social concern.

    ‘Measuring Social Capital—An Australian Framework and Indicators’ (cat. no. 1378.0)

    Published by the ABS in 2004, this release provides a broad conceptual framework and
    a set of possible indicators for measuring aspects of social capital. Aspects of Social Capital (cat. no. 4911.0) followed in 2006, drawing together available data for many of the possible indicators.

    Other conceptual frameworks and classifications

    Other new frameworks include those for education and training, sexual assault, domestic and family violence, criminal justice processes, and sport and physical activity. The new classifications include the Australian Standard Classification of Education, and the Australian Culture and Leisure Classifications.


    As a knowledge-intensive business, the ABS is critically dependent on the appropriate use of information and communications technology (ICT). The ABS adapts and reuses ICT to produce statistical output for a very large and increasingly complex Australian economy, society and environment.

    In 1980, the ABS received budget supplementation to acquire a single mainframe processing environment and to migrate all existing statistical and administrative systems to that new environment. This was the last external direct supplementation for ICT provided to the ABS. Since then, changes in ICT to enable ABS business initiatives and adaptation have been funded predominantly by re-invested internal efficiencies, although some funds have been allocated as part of new business program funding.

    The last decade has seen ongoing investment in ICT systems, networks and software, including the replacement of legacy mainframe elements with a contemporary processing architecture. The ABS has used a cost-recovery mechanism for information technology and computer programming resources, which has ensured the technology development in the ABS is driven by business considerations. The ‘cost recovery’ concept operates as ‘break-even’ business model. ABS resource centres allocate funding to a range of technology and professional services, with oversight by the ABS Information Resources Management Committee, which approves, revises and monitors investments and funding for ICT.

    Key developments from the last decade, where the ABS has self-funded the ongoing development of its ICT environment, include the following:

    An integrated system for household surveys (2005–2008)

    Process and system changes have been made to improve integration, processing, quality and timeliness of household surveys.

    Business Register redevelopment

    There have been three major redevelopments (1984, 1997 and 2008) of the ABS Business Register database, which is the master list from which ABS draws samples of businesses to be surveyed. The 2008 redevelopment will be completed with a staff cost of 22 staff years, a significant reduction on the 1997 redevelopment, which cost 100 staff years.

    Data capture processing

    There have been several data capture processing improvements during the last decade, including two generational shifts in image/character processing of forms for ABS surveys and the Census of Population and Housing, as well as:

      • use of computer-aided and telephone-based interviewing in household surveys

      • introduction of multi-modal data capture including electronic data collection, and

      • conduct of a large-scale e-form based 2006 Census, with Australian Government funding6.

    Core statistical processing

    The ABS has carried out significant re-design and development of the entire ABS application portfolio, including:

      • moving from a pure mainframe environment to a standard processing environment for client-server based systems, with mainframe decommissioning in 2006

      • ‘end-to-end’ re-engineering of the business survey processing systems, which commenced in 2002, and the household survey processing systems, ongoing from 2005, and establishing a single input data warehouse for all business data collected by the ABS.

    Information dissemination processing and consultancy

    Developments have included: creation and on-going maintenance of the ABS website; and establishment of the ABS Output Information Warehouse and associated processing environment (with around 90% of released official statistics processed through this warehouse, it is part of the critical output supply chain of data to the ABS website).

    Knowledge management infrastructure

    Since the mid-1990s, there have been three generational changes to the ABS’ knowledge management and personal computing environment, with the next generation of personal computing in development.

    Enabling technology infrastructure

    Developments have included:

      • a shift from pure mainframe-centric processing to client-server processing

      • introduction of mobile computing platforms

      • migration to ‘Voice Over IP’ for telephony services

      • introduction of collaboration tools, including instant messaging and video conferencing

      • enhancement of internet services

      • improvement in business continuity, through consolidated offsite backup and
        recovery, and

      • consolidation of significant servers, storage and networks.

    National statistical leadership

    Leadership has included prototype development and deployment of the National Data Network, which is a distributed data network for the National Statistical Service community, used to increase visibility, accessibility and reuse of data, tools and services.

    New central office building in Canberra

    The ABS Central Office in Canberra moved to a purpose-built building in 2001–02, which has markedly improved the working environment and the collaborative working arrangements.


    The ABS has continued to provide staff with training and work experience in conceptual, analytical, statistical, information systems and subject matter skills. Staff perception surveys have proven useful in identifying potential organisational cultural reform. Important areas of staff development have been in leadership and performance management skills.

    The ABS also offers a range of training programs for the broader National Statistical Service community, on a cost-recovered basis. The training has been well subscribed and there is growing demand, with the increasing recognition of the value of statistical capability in policy development, implementation and evaluation.

    The ABS pays careful attention to recruitment and staff retention strategies, especially in the increasingly competitive labour market. Over the decade, the effort required to attract and retain some key skill groups has increased. Contributing factors have been changes to the choices made by school and university students, and in university course offerings. One key skill group affected by these changes is mathematical statisticians, who are required by the ABS as methodological experts responsible for efficient and effective sample design and analysis processes. The ABS conducts a scholarship program, in conjunction with four Australian universities, to encourage gifted students to continue their studies in statistics. In addition, the ABS has established a close working relationship with the Centre for Statistical and Survey Methods at University of Wollongong.


    The volume of data disseminated by the ABS has increased enormously over the past 10 years. This reflects improvements to, and much greater automation of processing systems and output systems. Most collections now disseminate far more data than was previously the case. The ABS has funded a number of strategies from within its budget, including:

    ABS website

    Established in July 1995, the ABS website is the principal dissemination medium for ABS statistics. The majority of releases have been free on the website since December 2005. A telephone information and referral service continues to operate, now focusing on assisting customers, wherever possible, to help themselves via the ABS website. While some government funding was provided to support the move to ‘free from the website’ from December 2005, there was a reduction in net revenue of over $2.5m each year that has had to be absorbed by the ABS.

    The ABS continues to investigate improvements to the website, enhancing accessibility, usability, functionality and reliability. Notable recent developments include: addition of publications in digitised form including the entire Year Book Australia series and all printed publications released between 1994 and 1997; release notification systems, email and RSS feeds; download facilities for content such as data cubes, publications and spreadsheets; data visualisation mechanisms including animated population pyramids; use of Google search and map facilities; eMagazine style content including Year Book Australia as a web document; and National Regional Profiles.

    The number of pages published has increase fourteen-fold to 193,515 pages in five years, webpage-views have almost trebled in five years to over 140 million, and a seven fold increase in product downloads to over seven million in 2007–08.

    Confidentialised unit record files

    CURFs are available for use by authorised researchers for specific research purposes either on CD-ROM or via a web-based interface to the ABS remote access data facility, Remote Access Data Laboratory(RADL). The number of CURFs available for analysis has grown from 16 in 1998 to over 100 now available. To date, only two business surveys have been released as CURFs, due to the inherent difficulty in confidentialising business unit record data.

    The number of active individual CURF accesses has grown from 254 in 2003 to 5,020 in 2008. Currently, over 100 organisations access CURFs with especially strong growth in the government sector. Approximately half of the active accesses to CURFs are for policy development or related research. An ongoing agreement with the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee has made possible a wide range of CURF-based research projects within the university sector.

    The development of RADL, and the associated computer facilities, represents an important milestone in increased accessibility of CURF data. RADL provides access to a wider and more detailed range of CURFs than are available on CD-ROM. Authorised users submit their statistical analysis requirements (written in SAS, Stata or SPSS computing languages) via a web interface. Processing of these requirements then occurs within the ABS computing environment and output checked for confidentiality, before being returned electronically to the users concerned.

    Information Skills Program

    This program assists and encourages the informed, effective and increased use of ABS information by external clients, through high quality and responsive training and other information literacy programs. These services are provided to targeted client groups, including other government agencies, journalists, educators, information professionals and community groups. This program incorporates the Library Extension Program, which the ABS ran for many years.

    Improving statistical literacy in the Australian community and across governments

    Over the last decade the ABS has worked with schools across Australia, to establish and sustain the ‘Census@School’ program, an initiative aimed at improving the statistical literacy of teachers and students, and increasing the use of ABS data in schools. During 2007–08, the ABS also ran a successful pilot of a theatre style program to educate and engage with year five and six students visiting Canberra. The program is designed to introduce children to statistics and explain how statistics can influence decision-making and planning. The ABS also attended a large number of education conferences and workshops over the last twelve months, with the aim of raising awareness of statistics as a life skill.


    The ABS has continued to work towards fully integrating the interests of data providers into strategic direction setting, alongside emerging interests of users. As a result, there has been considerable success in recent years in reducing the overall amount of time businesses spend responding to ABS business surveys, while at the same time significantly expanding the range of statistics available. For small businesses, the reduction has been 22% since 1996–97, while for businesses overall, the reduction has been 15% during the same period. For household surveys, the overall amount of time householders spend responding to ABS surveys varies considerably from year to year, with many major surveys on 3–6 yearly cycles. The ABS has to balance the pressure to expand the household survey program, to meet the need for information about the population, with the load on the providers of the information.

    Most of the reductions in provider burden in recent years have been achieved through the use of administrative data and a broad range of smarter statistical methodologies, including ones aimed at improving relationships with providers. Recent achievements and initiatives, within the current resource levels, include:

  • reductions in sample sizes across a range of economic, social and environmental surveys, as a result of improved methodologies and estimation techniques, and other reductions in sample sizes through integration of annual economic surveys

  • substantial sample reductions across a range of surveys (including the Retail Survey) through the use of Australian Taxation Office data in survey design, and as a substitute for data that would otherwise be collected via a survey, and

  • work on the Standard Business Reporting project—a whole-of-government initiative aiming to standardise business data collection requirements and methods of federal government agencies.

    The formation of the Integrated Collection and Dissemination Services Division within the ABS in 2007 has contributed to further improvements in provider management, for example: placing responsibility for managing provider burden, for both businesses and households, under a single program; and creating opportunities to more effectively manage and coordinate strategies to reduce provider burden across the full range of ABS surveys.


    In 2008, the ABS released a Service Delivery Charter, outlining the ABS’ commitment to providing a quality customer service and specifying what clients can expect when they approach the ABS. The ABS will report on service delivery performance in the ABS Annual Report.


    The ABS is participating in a much wider range of international initiatives and collaborations than was the case 10 years ago. The ABS is recognised as a pre-eminent national statistical office and is often called upon to participate in a wide range of high level statistical development initiatives in relation to international standards, frameworks and methodologies.

    Over the last decade, the ABS has directly contributed to strengthening of statistical systems of countries, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as continuing to play a leadership role. The ABS has:

  • worked to improve data comparability across countries

  • contributed to the development of international standards in the fields of social, economic and environmental statistics—the most notable contributions are to the review of the System of National Accounts, Balance of Payments and International Investment Position Manual, the Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification (ANZSIC 2006) and the System of Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounts (SEEA)

  • provided extensive technical assistance for the Asia-Pacific International Comparison Program (ICP)

  • provided advice to many countries to assist with the undertaking of population and housing censuses, which form part of the 2010 Round of Population and Housing Censuses

  • cooperated with the international statistical community to identify and implement best practice statistical processes and methods, and

  • improved collaboration with Australian Government agencies on internationally comparable datasets.


    As this article again shows, the ABS has continued over the past 10 years its proud tradition of expanding and improving the statistical services it provides to governments, businesses, communities and the Australian people.

    Although the ABS has received some additional funding over the past decade, the vast majority of the expansions and improvements outlined in this article were achieved through finding more efficient and effective ways of designing, collecting, processing and disseminating our statistics.

    In many cases this has involved significant organisational changes as well as the development and implementation of more sophisticated survey design and analytical methods. It has also involved the cost effective application of computing and communication technologies to drive innovation and reduce operational costs, while at the same time expanding enormously the information available to assist and encourage informed decision making, research and discussion, at all levels of Australian society.

    It is not surprising that in a period where governments and society are placing increasing emphasis on the value of being able to access good quantitative data to better inform and evaluate both public and private decisions, the ABS continues to face demands for more and better statistical services. At the same time, the various phenomena that the ABS seeks to understand and measure in our economy, our society and our environment are changing more rapidly and becoming more complex and more challenging. This, combined with the growing sophistication of the uses and users of our data is having consequent impacts on the costs of collection, processing and dissemination across many of our statistical programs.

    Against this background, it is unlikely that the ABS in the coming decade will be as well placed to continue to deliver ‘a quart out of a pint pot’ as has been the case over the past three decades. Further investment will be required in the ABS if it is going to continue to lead the development of a national statistical service able to meet the needs of Australian governments and society in the 21st century. This will require governments to commit the resources required for the ABS to produce the evidence so necessary to inform and evaluate decisions—that is, trustworthy, relevant official statistics.

    1 The Australian Bureau of Statistics was was known as the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics (CBCS) until it became a statutory authority with the passing of the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975. The history of the CBCS and the ABS is recorded in Informing a Nation — the evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics 1905–2005 ISBN 0642479852.

    2 The Australian Bureau of Statistics in the 21st Century—Strategic Positioning—October 2004 by the Allen Consulting Group.

    3 A Confidentialised Unit record File (CURF) is a product that allows approved researchers with a valid statistical purpose to access individual survey responses. The data files are confidentialised and access is carefully controlled to ensure no individual or organisation can be identified.

    4 Mesh-blocks are a small area geographical unit. There are approximately 300,000 covering the whole of Australia. For more information on mesh blocks please refer to Information Paper: Draft Mesh Blocks, Australia (Reissue), 2005 (cat. no. 1209.0.55.001).

    5 For more information on the ASGS please refer to Information Paper: Outcome from the Review of the Australian Standard Geographical Classification 2008 (cat. no. 1216.0.55.002)

    6 The ABS won the 2007 Excellence in e-Government Award (e-Award) for the e-form based Census.

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