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Australian Statistician's review

Photo of David W. Kalisch, Australian Statistician

The information produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and our data capabilities contribute to the essential national infrastructure of this country.

Just as transport, telecommunications, or energy are critical in our society, ABS official statistics and their effective use underpin decisions that impact our daily lives. Our national data supports a vibrant democracy by enabling setting of fair electoral boundaries and informing community participation in contemporary issues, helps shape fiscal and monetary policy settings, and informs public policy and service delivery approaches.

The ABS has been producing official national statistics for almost 115 years. In 2018-19 we have continued partnering and innovating to deliver relevant, trusted and objective data, statistics and insights, releasing nearly 500 official statistical releases through the year. The ABS is providing further information insights by safely linking our data to other information, and expertly making more information available to analysts and researchers.

As a nation we cannot afford to be complacent or indifferent to the availability, and productive and safe use, of our essential national data resources.

The ABS is expected to effectively measure a changing economy, society and environment. We are drawing on a broader range of information to produce quality, timely national statistics. Technology is enabling more sophisticated, beneficial and safe use of our data to help design policy and service delivery strategies. The ABS has also improved the way we operate to deliver more public value from the funding we receive.

Contemporary costs of delivering quality statistical services have been increasing, as it becomes more difficult to secure strong survey responses from households and businesses. We also need to continue updating protections to secure sensitive personal and commercial data from cyber and other attacks.

ABS highlights for 2018-19

  • There were almost 14.3 million visits to the ABS website and more than 2.2 million downloads of ABS products
  • The ABS produced 496 statistical releases
  • The ABS implemented machine to machine transmission of data to key users, providing instant delivery of market-moving statistics
  • Integrated data sources provide new insights into the economy and the community for research, planning and policy development
  • The first edition of the quarterly Labour Account was released, providing new insights into the economy
  • Improvements to the collection of data for ABS surveys, including the increased use of web forms, have made the process more efficient and easier for people
  • Extensive public consultation was undertaken on potential topics for the 2021 Census, and major Census procurements were finalised
  • Interactive mapping technology for Commonwealth electorates released on ABS website provided a more accessible user experience
  • The ABS and Statistics Indonesia continued to build on their 20-year relationship, signing a new five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to support ongoing statistical collaborations
  • The ABS ranks 16th in the Grad Australia top 100 graduate employers in Australia and also celebrates the 60th anniversary of its Graduate Program

Many of our national statistics are world leading

Australia is recognised for the quality of our labour market statistics. ABS monthly labour force estimates are the most reliable across the world, and now include monthly estimates of underemployment and underutilisation. This is further complemented by new data from our Linked Employer-Employee Dataset (LEED), providing information on multiple job holdings and regional labour markets.

Our Labour Account estimates combine information from households and businesses to provide reliable industry employment trends, and put this together with data on wages and hours of work on a quarterly basis. Through the ABS, Australia is one of only four countries which has access to a labour account.

The ABS’ innovation to introduce annual re-weighting of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has improved the accuracy of our inflation measure over time, building upon use of scanner data and web scraping to update price movements. However, we remain the only G20 country that does not produce monthly inflation data.

We continue to produce world class National Accounts (one of very few countries that publishes all 3 measures of Gross Domestic Produce (GDP)). The ABS has enhanced our measurement of productivity, and are progressing improvement to output and productivity measurement in the growing non-market sector of the economy, with an initial focus on health. Over recent years, we have enhanced our financial statistics in a collaboration with Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) and the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA).

The ABS produces world leading population estimates, drawing upon a range of data sources including the five-yearly Census, immigration data, information from state and territory registries of births, deaths and marriages, and Medicare data. New population projections were produced following release of quality data after the 2016 Census.

The ABS is also globally recognised for the new information insights we produce through data linkage. The RBA, Treasury, and state and territory governments now have better understanding of firm dynamics, productivity, wage, and industry developments. Linked data is contributing other social policy and service delivery insights, including information to support needs-based school funding.

The ABS has expertise, judgments and tools that enable use of data for policy and research purposes in ways that do not compromise the confidentiality of individual or commercial information.

Capitalising on data: opportunities grasped or missed?

We are in an Information Age, where more data is being produced than ever before and decision makers are increasingly looking for data across a range of purposes.

The Governor-General’s speech at the opening of the 46th Commonwealth Parliament, in June 2019, noted that the “government will continue to invest in the use of data as a national resource to make better-informed decisions, develop innovative solutions to the issues facing citizens and provide improved services”. This is a very encouraging development.

For a number of years, the business sector has been investing in data and building their capability to use data. This is helping them make better decisions every day.

Use of data can lead to better designed government services and policy. The New Zealand experience, with use of its Integrated Data Infrastructure, shows how linked data can both improve outcomes for citizens and improve fiscal outcomes at the same time. The Data Integration Partnership for Australia (DIPA) has the potential to deliver increased benefits for Australia, building on gains achieved in the early years.

While new data is emerging from the Internet of Things, the ABS is also being asked to do more to measure a changing economy, society, population and environment.

Some of this new big data is not reliable enough to be used as the basis of important government or RBA decisions. Recent political polls in Australia provide just one example demonstrating how misleading information can be produced through unrepresentative data collections. In other instances, the ABS is using information from a range of these new data sources, such as retail scanner data, web scraping and some information from other commercial sources, to produce quality official statistics. We are actively assessing potential use of satellite data and other new data sources.

Looking at likely future developments across our economy, we do need to ensure that we have sufficient people with strong data capability and judgment to be able to fully exploit the emerging data opportunities for public benefit, while keeping sensitive personal and business information safe. As a country, we do need more people with a range of data-related skills and experiences to extract more value from these emerging data.

The conundrum for the ABS is that demand for information and data capability is growing while our operating funding has fallen by around 30 per cent in real terms over a decade. While the ABS is more efficient and effective than it was previously, funding cuts of this level inevitably reduce the service we can provide for governments, businesses and the community.

Our economic, labour market and population statistics have been prioritised, and are consuming an increasing share of our budget funding. These will now be the statistics at risk if there are further cuts to ABS funding over future years. Most of our essential social statistics, such as the Australian Health Survey, the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers and Indigenous-specific surveys, are now only possible through supplementary user funding. Extra funding is being provided by the Government for the ABS to again conduct a time use survey, and the Government recently announced extra funding for a mental health survey.

Maintaining community trust

Public trust in the integrity and security of ABS data processes and final numbers supports our democratic processes and institutions.

The ABS relies on the trust of households, businesses and other data suppliers to provide us with accurate and sometimes very sensitive data. We recognise that the quality of the service experience we deliver to the community matters, alongside the quality of the final data, and seek to improve the experience of those required to provide information to the ABS.

The ABS professionally and transparently uses information provided to us to produce our official national and regional statistics. We make statistics available to the community, to enhance Australia’s understanding of our collective situation. Access to detailed microdata, including integrated data assets, is carefully managed to protect privacy and confidentiality while enabling valuable research and evaluation to inform important decisions by governments, businesses and the community, again for our community benefit.

As the environment in which we operate, and as community and government expectations can change over time, consideration of public trust will remain core to ABS decisions about data collection and use.

Further progress on ABS transformation

The ABS has been pursuing a comprehensive organisational transformation since 2015 to improve its effectiveness through improved partnerships, strategy, governance, people, culture and infrastructure. Improved external partnerships and internal collaboration have in particular contributed to enhanced ABS performance over recent years.

Improved engagement with key data users has helped the ABS prioritise our work program, and advise on implications of potential changes, as we have confronted reduced funding over time. In some instances, this has contributed alternative user funding to maintain required statistics.

We are in the process of implementing new systems, while also paying attention to the security and stability of our core data collection, processing and dissemination systems. The ABS has purchased new data acquisition tools that are progressively being deployed across our survey program, improving cost effectiveness, the stability of these systems and the data supply experience for households and businesses.

The ABS is releasing more of its statistical content through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), benefiting the markets and other key data users. Development of a new consumer-friendly ABS website is on track for introduction in mid-2020, with a beta version now available. We have also introduced a Virtual DataLab, a facility that, in 2018-19, had around 1,000 expert data analysts generating new statistical insights from our microdata and linked data resources.

Risk management has become a more important consideration across ABS decision making, influencing choices about resource allocations, organisational structures, governance arrangements, and the allocation of expert staff. Improved internal collaboration and increased use of external expertise are also contributing to the quality of Australia’s official statistics.

The ABS continues to rely upon a professional workforce, building on our traditionally strong graduate recruitment and professional development. Over recent years, we have drawn in staff with a broader range of skills and experiences, complementing those with deep ABS knowledge. Flexible work arrangements and a positive workplace culture at ABS assist with staff attraction and retention, especially as data skills become more sought after across the economy.

Particular attention has been given to culture change at the ABS, increasing our customer focus, enhancing internal collaboration and encouraging innovation. We have deliberately worked with our middle managers alongside our senior team to achieve measurable change.

While considerable progress has been achieved with the ABS transformation over recent years, further investment and progress will be necessary as our operating environment evolves and as the data requirements of the government and the community are expected to increase over time.

A summary of key ABS transformation achievements over the past year is attached.

Preparing for the 2021 Census

Preparations for the 2021 Census, already well progressed, are drawing upon learnings from the 2016 Census, the 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, and our broader organisational transformation.

We have set three key objectives for the 2021 Census:

  • Smooth running: The Census experience is easy, simple and secure
  • Strong support: Governments, businesses and the community have confidence in the Census and there is a high level of community participation
  • High quality data: Census data is high quality and widely used to inform on areas of importance to Australia

The ABS is not just managing a major data collection, but also a major community event. Census design has therefore evolved to reflect contemporary community expectations of a seamless service, including responding to key issues that might emerge through this process.

Highlights from 2021 Census planning during 2018-19 include:

  • more extensive governance oversight, which also includes external perspectives, engagement of independent program assurers, and a more rigorous approach to program and risk management
  • adopting user centred design for aspects such as proposed self-service and contact centre approaches so the Census process better meets citizen expectations
  • significant consultation and some testing to develop recommendations to Government on content of the 2021 Census
  • conducting and completing full open tender procurement processes for a secure, simple and smart digital service and recruitment of a 30,000-strong temporary workforce
  • incorporating cyber security expertise from across government, now more readily provided by these specialist Government agencies compared to our experience in the lead up to 2016
  • building preparedness for key issues that may emerge during the Census process.


I once again acknowledge the commitment, professionalism and capability of the skilled staff of the ABS. In addition, I thank the Australian people for their ongoing support and trust in the ABS; without your participation we would not be able to produce the information that shapes Australia’s important decisions.

The ABS works with many national, state and territory agencies that provide us with data that are critical inputs to our statistics. This is alongside the work we do with national statistical offices around the world. The contributions of each of these governments and organisations is significant and we thank all these partners.

The ABS receives important strategic advice from the Australian Statistics Advisory Council (ASAC), led by Chairperson Professor Gary Banks AO. I thank Professor Banks and the members of ASAC for their regular insights and ongoing support, as well as the contributions we receive from active participation through multiple advisory groups.

I also acknowledge the support of our Ministers throughout the year, the Hon. Michael Sukkar MP (February – August 2018) and the Hon. Stuart Robert MP (September 2018 – May 2019).

David W. Kalisch

Australian Statistician

Transformation achievements 2018-19

Image of the ABS Transformation achievements in a graphic table, 2018-19

Image of the ABS Transformation achievements in a graphic table, 2018-19