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Australian Statistician's review

Australian Statistician, David W.KalischThe 2017–18 year has been one of delivery, development and design for the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The ABS’s data is more important than ever in a world of contested “facts” and we are constantly working to maintain the quality and improve the relevance of our important statistical services.

We have continued to deliver high-quality statistics, reprioritised our statistical program, made greater use of available big data instead of imposing on households and businesses, and improved the efficiency and capability of the ABS as an organisation.

ABS highlights for 2017-18

  • The ABS released 615 statistical products throughout the year, including more quality data from the 2016 Census.
  • There were 17.9 million visits to the ABS website and 2.8 million downloads.
  • The ABS designed, planned and delivered the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey (AMLPS) in less than 100 days and $40 million under budget.
  • ABS was awarded the 2018 Public Sector Innovation Awards, Citizen-Centred Innovation category, recognising its innovative use of agile methodology, rigorous approach to risk management, assurance and fraud control to deliver the AMLPS, with contributions from many partners.
  • The ABS was invited to deliver a keynote address to the Conference of European Statisticians on key aspects of the AMLPS.
  • The ABS launched an innovative new Labour Account to provide improved information on jobs and other features of the labour market.
  • The ABS enhanced the Consumer Price Index (CPI) by maximising the use of transaction data and moved from six-yearly to annual updates of consumer spending patterns.
  • In 2018 the ABS was recognised as a leader in the public service when it won the Federal Government Champion Flexible Working Award with Activity-Based Working in all ABS locations, portable computing access and default encouragement of flexible work arrangements.

Delivery of high quality official statistics

ABS delivers core statistics that reflect the everyday lives of all Australians, such as the cost of living, unemployment and wages, and provide the trusted, relevant insights to help inform Australia’s important decisions by governments, businesses and citizens.

In 2017–18, the ABS released 615 statistical products relating to economic, social, population and environmental areas. There were 17.9 million visits to the ABS website and 2.8 million downloads of ABS data. The National Accounts alone publish 12,500 statistical series each quarter. The ABS has a significant social media presence compared to other Government agencies, only surpassed by the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather site.

Development of new statistical solutions to maximise public value

The ABS is also building its future capability to ensure its relevance in the new Information Age. The ABS has enhanced and reshaped its statistical program to maintain our relevance in a world of contested “facts”. We are constantly assessing how to maintain the quality and improve the relevance of our important statistical series. Key initiatives include:

  • The Australian Labour Account – Understanding the Australian labour market, including wages, is a key focus for the community and policy makers. The ABS has supported this with the development for the first time of the Australian Labour Account. This framework provides estimates of key labour market variables related to jobs, persons, payments for labour and hours of work. A key finding from the Australian Labour Account analysis showed the growth in the number of people with multiple jobs.
  • Consumer Price Index (CPI) – The ABS has made a number of changes that will enhance the accuracy of the CPI. The ABS has moved from six-yearly reweighting of CPI spending patterns to an annual review and from direct price collection to use of big data or scanner data and web scraping. This has lowered data collection costs and improved the accuracy of the CPI. The ABS is considering the feasibility of producing a monthly CPI, which would deliver a more frequent indicator of household inflation to inform the setting of interest rates, public policy and business decisions, but this would require additional funding.

Data integration – the next frontier to maximise the value of public statistics

The ABS sees Data Integration as the next frontier of statistical organisations. We, along with many other statistical agencies around the world, are focused on making better use of existing data, irrespective of whether the data has been collected by a statistics office or by other public and private organisations.

The ABS partnered with the Department of Education and Training to use data integration to assist in the calculation of socio-economic status scores. This research will assist in the review of existing school funding models relevant to the allocation of Commonwealth funds over the next 10 years.

Recent collaboration between the ABS and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and the Treasury has found new insights into the drivers of productivity at the firm level, which can assist policies on economic growth and living standards by exploring the strong relationship between entrepreneurship and job creation in Australia.

Through the Data Integration Partnership for Australia (DIPA), the Australian Government has invested to maximise the use of government data assets. The intention is to create new insights into complex policy questions and evaluate the performance of government programs.

Big data throws new light on old problems

The ABS is also exploring big data sources for the production of official statistics.
These include:

  • The ABS is working with the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics and has demonstrated the feasibility of using telematics data from trucks to provide regular road freight statistics
  • Satellite imagery is another source where the ABS has demonstrated that it is possible to produce crop statistics through combining satellite data with small validation samples
  • As already mentioned, the ABS is using consumer price information from scanning at supermarket checkouts in its CPI calculations. The ABS is also investigating use of telecommunications data to produce selected statistics.

Designing and conducting a unique national survey in 99 days

The Treasurer directed the ABS on 9 August 2017 to undertake the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey (AMLPS) to collect statistical information from Australians on whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry.

This was a unique undertaking in ABS history and showcased our innovation in successfully delivering the survey. There were no precedents or roadmaps; the ABS had to start from scratch.

With a high public profile and tight timeframes, new ways of working and thinking needed to be applied. These included agile frameworks, continuous planning, collaboration and development. To put this in perspective: the ABS’s flagship Census starts five years before a Census survey; the AMLPS was successfully completed in fewer than 100 days and under budget.

This leadership was recently recognised in July 2018 when the AMLPS won the 2018 Public Sector Innovation Awards, Citizen-Centred Innovation category. The ABS combined an innovative use of agile methodology, a rigorous approach to risk management, and assurance and fraud control to deliver the survey. Effective partnerships with a number of public and private organisations were essential to deliver this initiative.

Trust is a core ABS value

Over the past three years we have been pursuing an extensive transformation program improving our organisational effectiveness through our partnerships, strategy, governance, people, culture and infrastructure.

Through all this change, the ABS has an abiding commitment that will not change: we undertake to take all steps within our powers to protect the confidentiality of the data we collect while also producing statistical insights.

In 2017–18, we engaged an independent security consultant to review storage and collection of Census data; implemented new practices for the handling of personal information, including independently-conducted privacy impact assessments; and developed robust frameworks and guidelines for outsourced ICT suppliers.

The ABS has a compact with the community that we will safeguard the necessary, and often sensitive, personal and business information we can legally compel from individuals, households and businesses required to produce our nation’s essential official statistics.

New statistical developments have improved the quality of data linkage alongside the introduction of new confidentiality approaches, enabling safe use of sensitive data without compromising the secrecy of sensitive personal and business information.

Although new data sources and methods will enable greater use of data for community benefit, privacy and social licence to collect and use data remains an important dimension for the ABS.

Big data and smaller budgets

The ABS, like all agencies, must manage within the resources provided by government.

Successive governments have reduced the ABS Appropriation over the past decade – in real terms and as a share of government. The ABS provides extraordinary value in terms of the data we produce and make available to the community. We continue to improve our efficiency as an agency.

To ensure we are delivering the best possible value to the taxpayer, the ABS has:

  • focused on achieving efficiencies by reducing corporate overheads, including reducing property costs through activity-based working
  • increased our use of administrative and transactional data collected by other entities to reduce direct costs to collect information from households and businesses
  • prioritised our statistical activities and ceased some activities.

The ABS regularly reviews the relevance and effectiveness of our statistical program. Recently, we have been enhancing the measurement of the non-market sector of the economy, productivity, the labour market and the Consumer Price Index (CPI), while also developing our data integration capability and assets. This has been made possible by prioritising existing ABS resources and some additional funding by the Government.

A review of our work program in 2017 confirmed that our customers are satisfied that the ABS is allocating its resources to the highest priority statistics, including economic and population measurement.

ABS delivering public value

The ABS strives to deliver as much public value as it can from its statistics.

We have to make choices about our work program and where to use scarce resources to ensure the best outcomes for the nation. We make choices across five main dimensions to try and meet our purpose of providing reliable and relevant information for the public good:

  1. We continue to produce official national statistics to a high standard and everyone expects us to deliver “perfect” statistics first time, every time with extensive public scrutiny.
  2. We try to ensure that our work program is relevant and evolves to meet emerging information needs.
  3. We aim to make our data available for important uses while making sure we do not compromise the secrecy of individual personal and business information provided to us on trust. Enhanced confidentiality approaches enable a better balance between increased use and still safe use of sensitive data.
  4. We continuously seek to improve the efficiency of our operations, including data capture. We recognise the burden we place on households and businesses to respond to surveys and we look to capitalise as much as possible from existing and emerging information.
  5. As we deliver our current statistical program, we are also building the future capability of the organisation so the ABS is well placed to continue operating as an effective national statistical agency into the future.

Although we must make trade-offs on how we use our available (and generally declining) resources, my view is that the ABS has increased its delivery of public value in 2017–18.

From Census 2016 to 2021

The ABS continued to release quality, timely and relevant data from the 2016 Census during 2017–18.

Data from the 2016 Census has provided us with a glimpse into the lives of communities across Australia, and how much we’ve changed since 2011. From internal migration data we learned that Australia is among the most mobile societies in the world.

Census data informed us that the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who had completed year 12 or its equivalent had increased by more than 10 per cent from 2006 to 2016.

Another Census insight into our society showed that driving remains the dominant mode of travel to work with 69 per cent of the working population (more than 6.5 million) commuting by car. This data was also combined with ABS geospatial information, for the first time, allowing people to delve deeper into the data.

There is so much more to learn from the 2016 Census. The broad, wide-ranging and continuing insights from our biggest statistical collection confirm my view that Australia needs to continue regular statistical collections that provide insights around small areas and small populations.

The ABS has started preparing for the 2021 Census. The ABS’s flagship program is a major exercise with planning, development, testing, implementation and delivery over a five-year period, drawing on the learnings from our 2016 Census experience and the conduct of the AMLPS.

Further progress with the ABS transformation

The ABS Transformation program is one of the keys to shaping the organisation for the future. In its third year of operation, our Transformation agenda continued to deliver significant improvements across six focus areas of: Environment, Strategy, Governance, People, Culture and Infrastructure.

Examples of ABS transformation are:

  • Enhanced consultation processes in the lead-up to decisions on the ABS Forward Work Program
  • High level of public trust in the quality of ABS statistics and quality data from the 2016 Census
  • The ABS adopts lessons from 2016 Census to successfully implement the 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey
  • The ABS refreshes its purpose, introduces three strategic objectives and endorses new enterprise strategic risks
  • The ABS continues to build capability, engagement and diversity of the ABS workforce
  • ABS culture change program implemented across the ABS, with a focus on leader-led change and high performance behaviours
  • The Statistical Business Transformation Program (SBTP) passed another independent external review, called a Gateway Review. The SBTP, which is a $257 million program to modernise the ABS’s ageing infrastructure, is on the path to successful implementation.


I acknowledge the skilled ABS staff for their professionalism, expertise and commitment. I also thank the Australian people for their ongoing support and trust, and acknowledge the many national organisations that supply us with data critical to our statistical collections.

In addition, we rely on many State and Territory agencies that provide essential information for the compilation of economic, social, population and environmental collections. The ABS’s ongoing partnerships with Australian government and international agencies have contributed significantly to the relevance and quality of our statistical products.

I also acknowledge the support our Ministers, the Hon Michael McCormack MP (July – Dec 2017) and the Hon Michael Sukkar MP (Jan – June 2018), have provided to us throughout the year.

David W. Kalisch

Australian Statistician