Launch of "Informing a Nation: The Evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics"

Informing a nation: The evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics was officially launched on 31 October 2005 by the Chair of the Australian Statistical Advisory Council, Professor Sandra Harding, at ABS House in Canberra.

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Australia's statistical history revealed [media release of 31 October, 2005]

Opening address by Dennis Trewin, Australian Statistician, Australian Bureau of Statistics

Address by Professor Sandra Harding, Chair, Australian Statistics Advisory Council

Opening address by Dennis Trewin, Australian Statistician, Australian Bureau of Statistics

- Sandra Harding, Chair of ASAC, Peter Crossman and other ASAC members
- Ex Australian Statisticians (Ian Castles, Margaret Cornwall, Keith Archer)
- Former ABS Staff (Bill McCue (1936), former Deputies and Acting Australian Statisticians, John Miller, Alan Bagnall, Tim Skinner, Richard Madden)
- Many other former ABS staff and colleagues
- ABS staff and friends, many of whom are watching over the network

When I was appointed Australian Statistician, it was a matter of great pride. I knew the ABS was regarded as one of Australia's great institutions and felt privileged to be given the chance to lead it. In a SMH [Sydney Morning Herald] article, well known commentator Hugh Mackay said

    "... In fact, ever since it was established in 1905 as the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, it has generated nothing but goodwill and trust.

    'But the main thing about the ABS is that its material is endlessly fascinating to anyone trying to make sense of this society. Its publications offer brilliant illuminations of the state of the nation, and the ABS remains the one indispensable source of information about the kind of society we are becoming ... Know thyself is as good advice for societies as for individuals, and no-one helps us do that better than the ABS.'

It was not until I read drafts of the chapters of this book that I fully appreciated what a powerful role the ABS had played in Australian society. We are one of the important pillars of Australian democracy. Our work is incredibly important and we should feel proud to play such an important role.

This book explains the story of ABS history and it is broken down by themes such as Economic statistics, Population Censuses, Methodology and Use of technology.

We have deliberately chosen what is known as a popular history style. We wanted it to be accessible to ABS staff and their family and friends as well as our many colleagues.

As part of this process we have gathered a fine collection of records and information. They will provide the base for a more traditional history work along the lines of Forster and Hazelhurst in 1988. We should do that some time.

It is clear from reading the book that the basic role of the ABS has not changed much over 100 years, nor has its core values of integrity, equality of access, professionalism and respect for the confidentiality of information provided to us. However, the way we do things has changed markedly - methodology and technology developments have been great enablers for change and fortunately these have been particular strengths of the ABS.

To conclude these brief comments, I will quote from the concluding paragraphs of the history volume
    'The ABS does have a fine history and has served Australia well. It plays a vital role in an Australian democracy - not just because it provides information that holds a mirror up to the society - but because that information is trusted.

    'This trust has proved important to governments as well. Because of it, discussions can focus on what the statistics mean for policy rather than on the integrity of the statistics themselves.

    'The Bureau's history has provided a fine shoulder on which to stand as we address the challenges of the future. There must be changes if the Bureau is to remain relevant and provide value for the money appropriated to it. But more than anything else we in the Bureau must be careful not to lose that trust - it is our comparative advantage. If we were to lose it, we would risk becoming just another information provider.

Finally, I would like to offer thanks to:

- Beth Wright and Joanne Caddy, authors of this book but members of the ABS staff who did a lot of the work on a part-time basis
- Dale Chatwin, assembler of much of the historical material and a contributing author
- Fred von Reibnitz, editor
- Petrina Carden, graphic artist
- Bill McLennan, who reviewed some chapters and provided many helpful comments
- Graeme Oakley, project manager
- My colleagues on the Steering Committee who also looked after individual chapters
- all current and former ABS staff who provided information to assist with the preparation of this volume.

We have tried hard to be as accurate as possible. But there can be different interpretation of events as events are seen through different eyes.

Finally, I would like to introduce Sandra Harding, Chair of ASAC to formally launch the history volume

Address by Professor Sandra Harding, Chair, Australian Statistics Advisory Council

Staff of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, both present and past, here in Canberra and also in the State Offices who are joining this event via the ABS Broadcast Centre, clients and friends of the ABS.

In the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of dipping into an early copy of "Informing a Nation" the publication that traces the first 100 years in the ABS' history, and that is being officially launched here today.

Although I have always been a fan of the ABS, and have taken a keen interest in its output and activities for some time, my reading has been rewarded with many surprises.

I have come away from the experience with a much stronger historical appreciation of the ABS. I have also developed some familiarity with, and affection for, the many thousands of hard working staff who over the decades have dedicated their working lives to the institution – for which they – many of you – can be justifiably proud.

This is really your day. And your history. You are right to be proud of it, and I feel very honoured to have been asked to launch this record of your work.

The book chronicles the efforts of an army of professionals, who have measured and surveyed their way through the decades.

It is a compelling image to image that spans generations and vast changes in our world...from a time when the T-Model Ford was the pinnacle of technology to now when we talk about virtual worlds and use words like 'blog' and refer to 'Remote Data Access Laboratories'.

This book traces the life of an organisation that has continued to do its duty to the Australian people through two world wars, the Great Depression and enormous social, economic, political and technological change.

On the 8th of December, 1905, Parliament gave its assent to the Census and Statistics Act 1905. In the following year, George Handley Knibbs was appointed Commonwealth Statistician and the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics was established.

When I stand here today and look at your mission statement there on the wall, I’m reminded of the many benefits that the Bureau has brought to our Australian democracy.

To my mind there are few institutions in our history that have underpinned an understanding of our national progress to the extent that the ABS has.

It has provided us with the data to enable a fair parliamentary electoral representation.

It has given us an accurate, independent and balanced view of how our nation has changed and to a large extent how our governments have performed.

It has given us many tools that we can use to understand, manage and improve our economic and social policy.

In the research area, the Bureau's work has enabled notable breakthroughs, for example finding a link between rubella and abnormalities in unborn children.

By informing the nation about the past, as recorded in endless rearrangement of 10 numbers and 26 letters, the Bureau provides critical insight into the future.

There is general agreement that the ABS has done its job well. Now, I’m a sociologist so it’s perhaps not surprising that I have been especially intrigued to read about the people and events behind that success, and also to learn how challenges were met with courage and decisive action.

In our present age of instant communication I can only wonder at the difficulty, back at the very beginning, in operating a Bureau of Census and Statistics with varied levels of cooperation from different state statistical offices.

Due to the different levels of resourcing for those offices and the challenges of contemporary communication, it must have been very difficult to create and maintain standards. Indeed it took some 50 years for that coordination to be ironed-out through agreements that created an integrated statistical service, responsible for serving both the needs of the Commonwealth and State governments.

In 1975 the Australian Bureau of Statistics was established as an independent statutory authority. The Statistician was given the powers of a Departmental Permanent Head in respect of the Public Service Act and for the first time the ABS was organisationally an independent department of State.

The independence of the Bureau has helped to underwrite its reputation as an organisation that remains apart from politics, an organisation where integrity is a core value and where trust of providers and government is carefully protected.

Today the system of State Offices serves the ABS well by keeping it in close contact with State Government clients and by allowing the ABS to tap into the widest possible labour market to recruit its staff. For me this embodiment of Federation in practice is the first of the ABS's four big achievements over the past century.

This federal style of operation is likely to be greatly strengthened in future by development of the National Statistical Service - the NSS. This service, although still in its early stages, will support the improved professional collection and analysis of statistics across all Australian governments.

The second big achievement over the first 100 years I think must be the fact that the Bureau has run, almost, a Century of Censuses.

Considering the technical and logistical issues, the hundreds of thousands of collectors involved, the consistent production of the Census is remarkable.

There were of course disruptions - wars and budgetary difficulties, and even the odd collector who got lost (the stories in the book are fascinating) - but at the end of the day the Bureau came through for the people of Australia.

As we gather here now, there is a team in this building, and in the States, urgently engaged in next year's Census - the fifteenth that the Bureau will have conducted.

The third big achievement I think was the Bureau's decision in the early 1960's to establish a computer network in all the Bureau's offices.

At the time this was pioneering stuff and made the ABS a technological leader in the public service, and Australia for that matter. The growing use of technology provided a strong impetus for a more coordinated and centrally managed statistical system.

Today, the ABS maintains this momentum. Its current plan to develop a National Data Network is strong reinforcement of the Bureau's leadership role in the strengthening of Australia's National Statistical Service.

It is really something to imagine the National Data Network future where researchers and users of statistics will be able to log onto a single site and find quality assured data from many sources.

The way the census program has adopted technology is also part of that core IT strength of the ABS. An online Census form next year and faster than ever processing are just some of the benefits that will come from that.

The Internet too, is changing the way ABS does its business. Publications and their related tables are now available free on line to anyone who wants them. Page views of the ABS web site are now running at the rate of about 50 million per year.

In the future, the Internet will continue to influence the way ABS data is collected and disseminated. Business surveys could be done online, data extracted from other government administrative collections and so on.

I think advances such as these will drive ABS' productivity gains over the medium and longer term.

The final big achievement I would like to note, and one that is well explained in the book, was the development of survey methodology. This meant the ABS moved from relying on censuses and administrative systems, covering a small number of topics, to doing surveys that covered a much larger range of topics.

This enabled the ABS to move into social statistics in a very significant way, and now reflects much of the Bureau's output.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my privilege to serve as Chair of the Australian Statistical Advisory Council, which as you know provides community guidance and input to the directions and priorities of the ABS' work.

In the past financial year, ASAC has provided advice to ABS on a range of key economic and social issues. These include: content for the next census; issues around the census data enhancement project; developments in environmental statistics; children and youth statistics; crime and justice statistics and future directions in electronic dissemination.

I’m pleased to report that the relationship between ASAC and the ABS is positive and productive and I think it is delivering the quality of interaction intended when the Council was first established under the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act, 1975.

When I and my fellow ASAC members look at today’s ABS we see an institution that not only has a rich past, but one that is firmly focused on the future - the next 100 years - that strives to remain relevant to the statistical needs of contemporary Australia.

There are challenges for you on the horizon, such as improving responsiveness to clients, upgrading official statistics in-line with recent funding improvements from the government and building a central role in Australia for statistical leadership.

All these are beyond the delivery of quality statistics for which you are already acknowledged as a leader.

It is my prediction that the ABS will find the wherewithal, in both leadership and resources, to meet these and the fresh challenges that will certainly come your way.

I predict that the ABS will continue to carve out its niche in our society.

That for the next 100 years it will continue to inform the nation with integrity and remain worthy of the public trust you enjoy.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my pleasure now to formally launch Informing a Nation.