1002.0 - Australian Statistics Advisory Council - Annual Report, 2019-20  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 19/10/2020   
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The disasters experienced in the second half of 2019–20 — bushfires in Australia and the global COVID-19 pandemic — presented significant operational and statistical challenges to the ABS. The size of the disruption to the local and global economies, and the speed with which this occurred, required the ABS to find new ways to respond quickly to the needs of the Government and the Australian community. The Council commends the ABS for what it achieved.

The Council held three meetings during 2019–20: in August 2019, November 2019 and May 2020 (see 'ASAC 2019–20 meeting agenda' section for agendas). Due to restrictions associated with the pandemic, the May meeting was held via teleconference.


The ABS’ objectives for 2019–20 (as outlined in its Corporate Plan) were:

  • to seek to ensure that ABS statistics are trusted and used to inform important decisions;
  • to develop partnerships to enable better decisions; and
  • to provide new statistics to support Australia’s emerging priorities.

ASAC considers that the ABS performed very well against these objectives in what was an especially challenging year.

COVID-19 response

In particular, while providing core products and services, the ABS delivered a timely, innovative and collaborative response to demands associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The following initiatives were regarded by the Council as particularly valuable:
  • delivery of near real-time surveys of households and businesses, and early release of preliminary versions of core ABS statistics;
  • development of new data sets and additional information to enhance existing products; and
  • successful partnership projects, e.g. Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages, achieved through collaboration between the ABS and the Australian Taxation Office accessing information from the Single Touch Payroll system.

The Council supports retention of some of the new and additional products in the ABS’ ongoing work program.

The ABS discussed with the Council the operational challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and actions taken, e.g. no face-to-face interviews, redeployment of personnel to support the broader Australian Public Service etc.

ABS funding

While recognising the resource constraints involved, the Council has reiterated the importance of maintaining the quality and coverage of existing collections, and expanding them where there is likely to be a significant benefit. ASAC has accordingly continued to support the ABS receiving sufficient resources to maintain its high standing as Australia’s national statistical agency.


During the year, ASAC continued to monitor progress on preparations for the 2021 Census of Population and Housing, in which members maintain a keen interest.

In 2019, the Census program focussed on development and testing of systems and processes, which would shift towards mobilisation and operational readiness in 2020. Key learnings from the October 2019 test were shared with the Council at the May 2020 meeting. In response, the Council advised on matters related to communication and engagement, in particular the role of public advocacy and the preparation and testing of communication plans.

In 2020, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) undertook an audit of the ABS’ preparedness for the 2021 Census. In March, responding to a request to its members from the ANAO, the Council submitted a collective response to the ANAO Audit: Planning for the 2021 Census. The submission (see 'ASAC submission to the ANAO' section) provides a summary of the Council’s activities in relation to the Census. The Council affirmed the activities undertaken by the ABS to prepare for the 2021 Census, including lessons learnt from the experience of the 2016 Census.


The Statistical Business Transformation Program (SBTP) formally concluded on 30 June 2020. The SBTP was responsible for designing and developing the next generation of statistical business processes and infrastructure.

SBTP has driven improvements in the areas of data acquisition and dissemination. Infrastructure and systems achievements such as DataLab, which established a way for users to access microdata safely and through files that could be analysed with standard software, have enabled users to draw greater value and insights from existing data assets. More timely release of data through machine-to-machine Application Programming Interfaces (API) enabled users to receive key numbers immediately upon release. In addition to such technological achievements, SBTP also brought improved ways of engaging and collaborating with stakeholders to improve ABS products.

Heightened data demands as a result of the pandemic saw the ABS responding to reduce delivery times for critical data. The Council recognised the valuable role of the innovations involved.

However, some planned improvements to processing and analytical functions were not delivered, due to recognition of increased risk to the quality of statistics. ASAC supported the decisions made by the ABS and advises seeking opportunities in the future to address areas where risk can be further mitigated.


Maintaining public trust in ABS processes and published statistics remains a priority concern for the Council.

The heightened threat landscape, especially in times of global uncertainty, means data security is an increasingly complex area that will demand more resources in order to maintain a secure environment.

In 2019, the Council provided advice on an ABS assessment of security priorities, supporting the need to invest further in cybersecurity, better assess and respond to the threat landscape, and partner with other government agencies on security matters. These areas for enhancement would contribute to providing necessary assurance to the public ahead of the 2021 Census.

The Council also provided advice on the possible establishment of a Data Ethics Advisory Committee (DEAC), and a model for enhancing citizen engagement with the ABS. The Council’s feedback on the possibility for a DEAC centred on the importance of establishing a clear role for such a committee and how it would operate in the context of broader government data policy.


Ongoing reforms to the data system, and the ABS’ role and responsibilities, remained a focus in 2019–20. The Council was updated by the ABS on developments across the wider landscape, in particular cross-agency collaboration on data integration and the ABS’ partnership with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) to develop legislation on data availability and transparency.

In 2020, COVID-19 markedly altered the operating landscape and tested the ABS’ readiness to deliver critical data and services. ASAC welcomed the sharing and efficient use of data to address emerging priorities, and cooperative engagement by the ABS with governments and the private sector to ensure critical data was provided in a timely fashion.


In 2019, ASAC was consulted on strategic directions for the ABS, including the building of data capability across governments. The Council welcomed the attention to capability building. Feedback included:
  1. The ABS may need to consider balancing the pursuit of its leadership and co-ordination role in capability building in the wider Australian Public Service with its core purpose to produce statistics so it can make the most of opportunities to take a stronger role in the data landscape and to maximise the value it can provide Australia.
  2. Increasing the visibility of the ABS’ expertise is central to establishing its leadership role in capability building. There is an opportunity to convince stakeholders of the importance of core data skills and the ABS is uniquely placed to contribute.
  3. There are opportunities to promote the ABS’ own capability in these areas and in particular with respect to:
      • positively influencing stakeholders’ views about the importance of data access and engagement;
      • growing the collective data capability across all governments; and
      • educating stakeholders about what constitutes data quality and the implications of using data that are not fit for purpose.

The Council believes that, as Australia’s pre-eminent national statistical agency, the ABS needs to engage with its counterparts internationally, both to learn from them and to share its experiences. However, it is important that such engagement continues to be strategically targeted to yield the best payoffs.


ASAC meetings provide a useful opportunity for the ABS to receive information and advice regarding statistical issues across the jurisdictions and sectors represented.

In addition to challenges in common posed by the bushfires and COVID-19 in 2019–20, Council members highlighted the following:
  1. The importance of the Census and other population data in understanding and responding to significant developments in population growth.
  2. Gaining insights into dimensions of intergenerational wellbeing.
  3. Expanding data integration and data sharing further to allow the increased use of linked data.
  4. Collaboration between agencies, and engagement between public and private enterprise to inform service delivery, capability building and knowledge sharing.
  5. Improving Indigenous data to help support realisation of better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.