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Special article 1: ABS - Leading skills and capability development across the Australian data landscape

The ABS’ enabling legislation establishes the ABS at the centre of the Australian data landscape - to lead, coordinate, and collaborate with others in relation to statistical activities. The ABS has a long history of driving improved statistical capability both domestically and internationally.

Today’s decision makers have access to a vast data landscape with information available from a range of public and private organisations. This includes data from small online surveys, real-time tracking of business processes, and complex big data.

As the data landscape has shifted, so too has the approach taken by the ABS to build statistical capability amongst its users and stakeholders, both at home and overseas. The ABS has been building capability through secondment of staff, provision of statistical training programs, and international statistical development.

During 2018-19, the ABS had 11 staff seconded to state or territory government agencies and 12 staff seconded to Australian government agencies. In 2019, the Western Australian (WA) Department of Justice (DoJ) sought assistance from the ABS to refresh the sample design of the WA government’s drug prevalence research. An ABS officer was seconded to the DoJ to update the testing regime and build the expertise of DoJ staff.

The ABS has also worked across the broader APS, aiming to improve data literacy and enhance practical analytical skills across government portfolios.

The ABS Statistical Learning Platform (established in 2016) allows staff from external agencies to enrol in online statistical capability courses. In 2019, more than 20 agencies and organisations accessed the platform, including the Australian Tax Office (ATO), Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS), and IP Australia. At 30 June 2019, more than 500 individuals were active members of the portal.

The ABS is also supporting whole of government work force planning by sharing the statistical job roles used within the ABS. The ABS has established a range of data and statistical job roles, which outline the core activities and capabilities of staff working in statistical functions. The APS-wide approach to workforce planning is being led by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC).

Since 2013, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has provided funding that allows the ABS to help other countries to enhance their statistical systems and meet their reporting obligations under the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The ABS delivers programs in five countries, with a team of more than 30 world-class experts from within the ABS working directly with their counterparts in other National Statistical Offices (NSOs).

While the ABS will continue to provide decision makers with access to statistical support, there is increasing demand for more advanced skills. This includes demand for data scientists who can analyse and interpret large integrated datasets. While demand is increasing, there are fewer new graduates with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills available to fill the data science roles.

As a leader in the analysis and interpretation of large datasets, the ABS will look to leverage its expertise to continue building data capability across Australia.