National Longitudinal Data Conference

Powerful Data - Strong Evidence - Informed Policy

Keynote address: The Transformation of Official Statistics: Creating longitudinal insights from existing data sources, Canberra, 27 October 2016

David W. Kalisch, Australian Statistician

The Transformation of Official Statistics: Creating longitudinal insights from existing data sources

Firstly I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the Traditional Custodians of the land we are meeting on today and pay my respects to their Elders both past and present, and to acknowledge members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community who may be attending this conference today.

Secondly I would like to thank the organisers at the National Centre for Longitudinal Data, Finn Pratt, Serena Wilson and the Department of Social Services for the opportunity to make this presentation.

Unleashing the power of statistics for a better Australia

As the Australian Statistician, and the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, I understand the importance of producing information that informs decision making - from governments through to businesses and households, families and individuals. I cannot think of any key decision that does not draw upon, at least to some extent, the essential statistics delivered by the ABS.

With almost 500 statistical products released last year, the ABS collects and reports a range of economic, social and environmental data. These statistics are produced through a range of different methods to provide a picture of Australian society - including detailed cross-sectoral surveys, time series collections, composite indicators, administrative by-product, population samples, Censuses and longitudinal and panel data.

Each of these methods of producing statistics have different costs and benefits and the approach selected needs to be fit for the intended purpose.

In this pluralist data world, other organisations also play their role - and should be expected to play their role - in contributing to the rich information tapestry to inform the nation.

The theme for this conference: Powerful Data - Strong Evidence - Informed Policy resonates with me. When I reflect on the many public policy statements over recent years, programs are largely judged on two key dimensions; how many people are affected and how much it costs. The focus is on the immediate impact - how many people are likely to be winners and how many are losers if the policy is introduced and generally on the basis that no-one changes their behaviour.

This last assumption generally made is the most heroic one, as most public policy is introduced with the explicit purpose of changing behaviour and improving outcomes.

This is why it is so important to have rigorous, reliable approaches to monitor and evaluate outcomes. We can get a sense of the changes by undertaking cross-sectoral analysis but for some outcomes, we do want to directly measure whether the individual’s or family’s circumstances have changed.

A focus on the lifecycle dimensions or intergenerational impacts can strengthen the need for longitudinal data through showing the pathways or transitions over time.

In the analysis of low wages, employment/unemployment and poverty, the distribution and longevity of poor experiences are paramount, not just how many people are disadvantaged at a point in time.

Past longitudinal studies in key sectoral areas - generally overseas but also in Australia - have demonstrated the worth of longitudinal data for policy purposes and community understanding.

This is indicative of the partnerships that the Department of Social Services has had with the academic research community over many years - partnerships which have been built around mutual benefits and mutual respect.

There is a strong argument for the continuation of the current longitudinal surveys, particularly those that have accumulated a long history of data. However in a world of increasing access to administrative data and the technology to safely and accurately link existing data sources together, there are opportunities to also bring together many point-in-time administrative, survey and Census datasets to produce longitudinal views of people, families, businesses and communities in a cost effective and timely way.

National Statistics Offices, such as the ABS, have an important role to play in the development of these new data sources. Two key dimensions with respect to the ABS are:

  • We have legislation that affords us access to data sources, and protects the privacy of individuals and businesses
  • We are the custodians of fundamental data sources to anchor other datasets and provide a base to weight the data:
    • for people and families - it is the Census of Population and Housing
    • for businesses - it is the Australian Business Register.

What is the ABS already doing?

So what has the ABS been doing to support longitudinal insights? The ABS is partnered with other data custodians to produce new data sources, which I will now briefly discuss.

Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset

For a statistical view of Australians' journeys through life, the Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset or ACLD integrates a sample from the 2006 Census of Population and Housing with the 2011 Census. The ABS will also link the 2016 Census. This dataset provides insights into the changes over each five year period for people and families. Through using a 5% sample of the Census, the large sample size allows longitudinal analysis of groups of people that would be extremely difficult with conventional longitudinal surveys.

With the range of Census questions on the ACLD, transitions over time can be analysed from many different perspectives. For example, the 2014 Industry Report produced by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, used the dataset to analyse employment outcomes of Automotive Manufacturing workers. The analysis found that despite the magnitude of structural change in the Automotive Manufacturing Industry between the 2006 and 2011 Census, the employment outcomes for 2006 automotive workers were mostly positive - most workers exiting the sector managed to successfully transition to other industries or sectors.

Over time, the Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset will continue to grow in value as data from each successive Census are linked, providing an extended longitudinal picture of the social and economic conditions in the lives of Australians.

The ACLD has been a huge success with over 8,000 users registered. The utility of the data has also been enhanced through linking it with selected administrative datasets including migrant settlements. We are also in the process of linking social security payment data. The 2016 ACLD is scheduled for release in December 2017.

Business Longitudinal Analytical Data Environment

In partnership with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, the ABS has built the business longitudinal analytical data environment or BLADE. BLADE combines several years of Australian Taxation Office administrative tax data with ABS business survey data to provide detailed information on the characteristics and finances of Australian businesses. Formerly known as the Expanded Analytical Business Longitudinal Database or EABLD, this integrated data environment enables analysis of businesses over time and includes the micro-economic factors that drive performance, innovation, job creation, competitiveness and productivity. BLADE has already been used to examine the contribution of start-ups to job creation in the Australian economy, revealing that it is young small to medium enterprises that make the greatest contribution to overall jobs growth.

Linked Employer-Employee Dataset

The foundational linked employer and employee dataset opens up a source of new insights into employment. This brings together personal income tax data with business data from BLADE and has already provided a better understanding of multiple job holding.

This project represents an important first step, with the future to include data across multiple years and more detailed socio-economic and demographic information related to employees. Through further linkage with other datasets, additional characteristics could be used to explore the drivers of firm-level performance, such as the educational qualifications of employees. It will also provide more insights into job creation and job destruction as industries change over time, with the ultimate longer term goal to enhance our understanding of productivity, the changes in employment by industry, entry and exit to the labour market and other labour market dynamics.

Longitudinal Study of Australia’s Children

The ABS in partnership with the Department of Social Services and the Australian Institute of Family Studies, and with advice from a consortium of leading researchers, conducts fieldwork for the Longitudinal Study of Australia’s Children or LSAC. This partnership leverages existing ABS expertise and infrastructure.

For over 12 years, LSAC has been an important source of information on the impact of Australia's social and cultural environment on children. The value of LSAC has been increased through linking survey data to other sources of data to provide a more complete picture of individual, family, and broader social and environmental factors. I hope you have the chance to attend some of the LSAC presentations during this conference.

Multi-agency Data Integration Project

There are also future longitudinal data opportunities with our other data integration partnerships, such as the Multi-agency Data Integration Project. This brings together, for the first time, Census data with administrative data on health, income, and social security payments, to establish a rich cross-portfolio data resource that can be used for research and policy purposes. The project, using 2011 data, is currently in an evaluation phase and has significant potential to be extended across time (longitudinally) and expanded to include other data sources of importance to program evaluation and public policy.

But ultimately in the longer term we do not want a range of bespoke integrated datasets presenting limited views of people, businesses or communities - the ABS would prefer to establish longitudinal integrated views that would be readily available to be used responsively to address current and emerging policy questions across a wide range of issues.

ABS transformation

The work on producing datasets to aid decision making has been in the context of the ABS transformation. Over the last few years, the ABS has been grappling with the parlous state of the ABS statistical systems and the risk posed for Australia’s key statistics. The ABS statistical business is being transformed through an investment by Government of $257 million over five years.

This is being complemented by an extensive transformation of our internal operations, with a focus on our partnerships, strategy, governance, people, culture and our property infrastructure. We are cognisant that taxpayers fund our services and we are determined, as much as possible, to continually improve the value to taxpayers from our stewardship of their resources.

We are over one year into the transformation which will see improvements to the ABS processes, reduce risk to key economic and population statistics but also improve access to our statistics that does not compromise the privacy and confidentiality of sensitive personal and business information.

ABS Transformation future

The ABS future is to provide better statistical solutions and the statistics required for current and future decision making. We need to fundamentally improve the way information resources are managed. It will include maximising, as much as possible, the use of existing information, not only the many government administrative data sources but exploring non-government data.

We will continue to collect information directly from people and businesses, but even here seek to maximise the value of this information through linking other datasets to our Census and surveys. We will have greater co-ordination of effort across our business and social statistics, creating more complete and coherent statistics.

We will use improved collection methods, including the consolidation and integration of our household survey program to ensure we deliver an optimum survey program, while supporting analysis across the range of socio-economic conditions over time. It will also allow us to produce relevant statistics on smaller populations and local communities.


The ABS is working to achieve greater use of our information and evidence. We want ABS statistics to contribute to good decision making by governments, business, households and across the community, while naturally protecting the confidentiality of the sensitive information provided to us by households and businesses.

Longitudinal datasets provide useful insights to aid good decision making, but they do need to be seen alongside other information resources, and we expect other organisations will continue to play an important role in contributing to future information resources.

With the inevitable challenge of limited resources, expanding user demands and keeping ahead of measurement challenges within a dynamic economy, society and environment, the ABS continues to face difficult choices around our priority statistics.

Iterative change will not be sufficient, and the additional investment we are making in new statistical processes and systems is key to our future capability.

The other critical part of our change is for the ABS to improve our partnerships with key stakeholders, to draw not only on their understandings and in some cases their resources, but to co-design new statistical solutions that provide greater insight than is currently possible from our current statistical program.

It is an exciting but demanding time for statistics and policy making, to provide governments, businesses and the community the information required for important decisions.

Thank you.

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