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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Submission by the
Australian Statistics Advisory Council (ASAC)
13 March 2020

This submission has been prepared as a collective response to David Monk’s invitation of 18 February to individual ASAC members in relation to the ANAO Audit: Planning for the 2021 Census. It describes the role of ASAC and provides a summary of its activities in relation to the Census. ASAC’s chair and secretary would be happy to provide elaboration as required. ASAC members are of course not precluded from making additional separate contributions.


The Australian Statistics Advisory Council (ASAC, the Council) was established under the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975 to provide independent advice to the responsible Minister and the Australian Statistician on:
  1. the improvement, extension and coordination of statistical services provided for public purposes in Australia;
  2. annual and longer-term priorities and programs of work that should be adopted in relation to major aspects of the provision of those statistical services;
  3. any other matters relating generally to those statistical services (subsection 18(1)).

The Council comprises an independent Chairperson, the Australian Statistician (ex officio) and senior officials from the Australian Government and state and territory governments, as well as senior representatives from business, academia and the community sector. ASAC meetings are generally held in person three times a year, but the Council may also interact out of session as appropriate. Adequate time is allowed at meetings for members’ input and feedback, which are encouraged by the Chair to be ‘free and frank’. ASAC is assisted by a secretariat drawn from the ABS.

The Council’s statutory independence and the seniority and experience of its membership enable it to provide higher-level strategic advice that complements input from various technical and representative consultation fora created by the ABS. The Council contributes to ABS decision-making about directions and statistical priorities and helps inform assessments of key risks and strategies.

ASAC/ABS engagement on the Census

At each Council meeting, the Statistician provides a general briefing to members that includes coverage of developments and issues relating to the Census. Periodically, meetings include an agenda item that deals with specific Census matters on which feedback is sought, generally supported by a paper circulated in advance. Thus, while ASAC is not part of the formal governance arrangements for the Census, it has the opportunity periodically to monitor developments and provide advice on key issues.

During 2016-17, the Council engaged in extensive post-mortem discussions with the ABS relating to the 2016 Census and implications for future censuses. Areas discussed included the operational problems and how these were handled, as well as lessons that emerged (including through external reviews) relating to managing transition to a digital-first Census, effective media and community engagement, improving operational delivery, and understanding the environment externally as well as within government. Gaining an understanding of how the outcomes from the Census compared to earlier ones was also a point of focus, as well as issues in promoting a wider appreciation of this.

In addition to their contributions through the Council, two members of ASAC served on the 2016 Census Independent Assurance Panel.

It should also be noted that the Council was briefed, and members’ views sought, on matters relating to the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey 2017 (AMLPS), including through a special teleconferenced meeting.

In preparation for the 2021 Census, the ABS has kept the Council abreast of preparations and sought its feedback/advice at each meeting since March. Council members have actively engaged in discussions on a variety of topics and issues, including:
  • Strategies to address key risks (including those related to technology, maintaining public trust around privacy, etc.)
  • Funding requirements and approaches to addressing deficiencies
  • Census content development and topics for possible inclusion or removal (including topics that involve significant challenges and sensitivities such as gender/sex related)
  • Strategies to improve participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (including the question of a panel to assist with engagement strategies)
  • Communication and engagement with the media (including proactive and reactive approaches).

Over the past year, learnings from the earlier AMLPS experience and, especially, the large-scale ‘live tests’ in country NSW and Queensland in 2019 have provided a focus for discussions concerned with improving operational performance and statistical outcomes in the coming Census.

In the year ahead, and leading up to the 2021 Census itself, ASAC will continue to receive regular updates and other information from the ABS and have the opportunity to provide feedback and engage in discussions with senior officials. The Council will thereby continue to monitor developments and offer advice that draws on the experience and interests of its members, including in the areas of managing key stakeholder relationships and operational risks. That said, the Council recognises that its role in relation to the Census should be regarded as a high-level one that complements the ABS’ dedicated internal governance arrangements.