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3. Summary assessment

This capability review has come at an opportune time in the history of the ABS.

The ABS and others who contribute to meeting Australia’s statistical and information needs through the NSS—the community of government agencies working together to build a rich statistical picture for a better informed Australia—are grappling with the flood of information newly available through various media.

The ‘information age’ and the concept of ‘big data’ have arrived, and the ABS and its partners need to be better prepared to maximise the potential this presents. As Australia’s key storehouse of data for quality decision making, the ABS will have to transform itself to further improve the impact it has across the sectors in which it operates, and over time broaden its coverage to include emerging data sources. This is an area attracting much interest across many Commonwealth Government agencies. At the same time, the ABS has an opportunity to enhance its already strong reputation for building and maintaining high-quality statistical databases.

Greater availability of administrative data held by government agencies, especially when managed as an integrated dataset, has a key role to play in developing whole-of-government solutions to the complex challenges facing Australia. There is an unprecedented opportunity for the ABS to be a leader and coordinator in unlocking the statistical potential of administrative datasets across government. Assisting other agencies to build their statistical capability is a necessary precursor. These challenges and opportunities are key drivers of the agency’s planned transformation and its need for investment in new statistical infrastructure.

ABS core statistical business processes and information technology are outdated, failing and/or fragile, and well overdue for an upgrade. There has been inadequate depreciation provision for capital infrastructure in recent years, and in consequence the ABS has not invested in an ongoing program of capital infrastructure renewal. The agency is part way through preparing a business case seeking the funding to remedy these deficiencies and equip the ABS to take advantage of future opportunities. The agency is grappling with the organisational capability challenges this will involve. This need for an upgrade comes at a time when the government is facing fiscal challenges and the APS is facing similar constraints around funding and access to new policy investments.

A new Australian Statistician is about to be appointed. The current Australian Statistician hands over the leadership baton with the agency prepared and ready for upcoming changes and challenges in business processes and infrastructure. However, it is not as ready to maximise the value of all government-held information by addressing the significant change in culture and relationships essential to move to a strong position, leading the NSS, and partnering with others across government. The incoming Australian Statistician will have the opportunity to drive the transformation forward and reposition the agency.

The review team found that the need for transformation is reflected in all aspects of the capability review framework—leadership, strategy and delivery—and requires that deeply held ABS values and culture be tested against the changing policy and information environment, and refreshed where needed. It is hoped that the insights developed through this capability review—those of the review team and of the many people spoken to during the review—help the new Australian Statistician and their team to prepare the ABS for its future.

Institutional reputation

The ABS is widely regarded as one of the best statistical agencies in the world. It has a strong reputation as a highly respected and trusted institution. The independence of the Australian Statistician is a prerequisite to this respect and trust. However, the manner in which this independence has been exercised has contributed to a degree of organisational isolation and insularity that needs to be addressed.

Globally, national statistical offices are, rightly, seen as central to the fabric of good government, contributing to a well-informed society. The review team, and all interviewees without exception, recognised the critical importance of the ABS. The reputation it holds within the international community and across Australia is deservedly high.

Privacy and integrity are the pillars of the agency, and the ABS takes these very seriously to ensure respondents to ABS surveys can be confident that their data remains protected. It was consistently stated that the ABS is the most trusted custodian of information in the nation and that ABS data are gold standard and reliable. Those spoken to for this capability review recognised this. They want this high standard to continue, but recognise there are threats to this position.

The ABS operates under legislation designed to support its role as a provider of high quality and trusted public good statistics. This legislation protects the professional integrity of the Australian Statistician, places an obligation on Australian residents to provide data required for statistics, obliges the ABS to use that data only for statistical purposes and in doing so to prevent disclosure of the identity of any individual person or business contributing data.

The ABS interprets the legislation strictly and conservatively. This is limiting the way data are currently released and accessed. External stakeholders do not accept that the legislation’s intent is to be so constraining. There was a clarion call for the ABS to ‘ease off a little on the independence’ and consider how it could review its policies and procedures.

A range of users, including many government agencies, consider the application of this legislation to be an obstacle to realising the full potential value of the micro-data collected by the ABS.

The reputation of the ABS faces some risk as it is seen as not keeping pace with a changing environment and alert or responsive to the changing demands of its stakeholders and users. A common theme from external stakeholders was that the ABS was disconnected from the Commonwealth Government—politically and with key stakeholders who have, and will continue to have, a view about the agency’s future. Planned transformation and new infrastructure will address some of these issues, but a review of legislation and associated policies may also be a consideration for the new Australian Statistician.

Acting independently does not mean acting alone. Stakeholders are keen to partner with the ABS and be actively involved in ongoing dialogue to identify strategies that will enable ABS to maintain its institutional reputation and comply with legislation while participating more fully in pursuing the requirements of whole-of-government partners. The ABS has a choice—continue to maintain the orthodoxy of independence or partner with other government agencies, enabling better access to and use of the sum of the nation’s most important data.

People and culture

Staff in the ABS are optimistic and positive about the important work they deliver for Australia. The workforce is highly skilled, engaged and committed to the agency. People tend to start their careers in the ABS and leave within a few years or stay a very long time. This has led to deep expertise and a culture which has strong relationships and familiarity. These views were reinforced in the most recent State of the Service Report (SoSR) which shows that the ABS encourages ethical behaviour, good work – life balance and has good internal collaboration, respect and civility. The ABS rates consistently above the APS and other similar agencies on these issues. A consistent theme throughout the review has been that staff regard the ABS as a great place to work.

The egalitarian nature of the ABS culture is a strength and source of potential weakness. The culture produces many positives including close conformity to internal priorities and mission. The aligned Executive Leadership Group (ELG)—comprising the Australian Statistician and Deputy Statisticians, who provide strategic oversight of the ABS and determine its policy—has created a vision for change which has been well communicated and has broad shared ownership. The change narrative is being  translated into action across the agency through active engagement of the senior leadership team and staff in shaping the ABS transformation plan.

Notwithstanding the good work done on articulating accountabilities and committee responsibilities, the prevalent view is that decision making was sometimes slow and implementation slower still. This needs attention as external stakeholders are losing patience and the pace of change required to acquit the transformation agenda will be hindered.

So while the review team notes that the ELG is aligned, there needs to be further consideration of how the ELG works with other governance committees and the broader Senior Executive Service (SES) cohort to ensure the skills and experience of the group are optimised and that members are leaders of this relatively large agency.

At the same time, the culture has resulted in issues requiring attention if the ABS is to be well placed to continue to progress the planned change. These include:

  • managing underperformance
  • encouraging workplace diversity, and in particular addressing the challenges for women in the workplace and the participation and retention of Indigenous Australians
  • implementing decision-making processes that are scalable to fit the issue being considered
  • increasing the levels of political acumen to maximise engagement with key decision makers and connect more effectively with Government.

Some work is underway to address these issues and it is of note that the agency’s human resources (HR) and workforce policies have been re-energised in recent years to better support its vision and strategy.

Throughout the review many people interviewed, both internal and external, commented on the need for cultural change as the ABS transforms and repositions itself for the future. Central to this cultural change is a move to a more open, engaged and outward-looking agency, working in partnership with others.

There is also a need to become more outcome focused, recognising the policy/delivery challenges facing colleagues across government(s) and using this common understanding to gather evidence on which to base policy decisions. This would help to bring a greater coherence to the role of the ABS and improve its relationship with Commonwealth Government partners. Some stakeholders have referred to the ABS as isolated, insular, inflexible and at times uncooperative. This suggests a need for an injection or augmentation of new skills and expertise and a greater diversity in the workforce and leadership group.

Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game. In the end, an organisation is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.

Lou Gerstner, IBM

Transforming the ABS

In response to the pressures building over recent years, the ABS is taking a more proactive approach to transforming itself as an iconic institution. The agency is moving from a more narrow view of the world which had ABS data placed at the centre, to one that is much broader and requires deeper collaboration and partnership with its stakeholders. It is widely recognised that this is a business transformation not just an information technology transformation. The emergence of ‘big data’ and different ways of managing information will be a challenge for the ABS both in terms of its practices and its culture, particularly the way it interacts with data, creates information and relates to stakeholders.

There is no doubt that the ABS is facing complex problems exacerbated by pervasive technology risks and challenges. The previous long-term strategy allowed the agency to fund an expanding work program through offsetting savings, often reflecting technological change. Savings accrued to divisions that achieved them were generally used to fund investment within that division, regardless of relative need and importance to the ABS program. This strategy contributed to the current critical technical and financial state the ABS now finds itself in. This has been partially addressed by the strategic approach to capital investment that has been implemented over the past four years, focusing investment on the systems of greater importance to the ABS as a whole. These more recent attempts to stabilise the financial situation are almost ‘too little too late’ as opportunities to secure additional funding around a decade ago, when the APS was in a less constrained financial environment, were not pursued as rigorously as they could have been.

Faced with the twin pressures of failing systems and increasing financial constraints, the ABS has led collaboration with global statistical organisations that perceive the same future challenges as a key enabler. Work is underway to partner with these organisations in creating compatible underlying statistical infrastructure and sharing expertise and resources.

Clear direction is set for the ABS and there is strong internal commitment at all levels to transformational change through the ABS 2017 program. The scale and ambition of the program—a major transformation of statistical business processes and infrastructure—is significant. It is perhaps best summarised in the words frequently expressed within the ABS where it is described as:

… a change from a series of cottage industries where customised business processes were developed for each statistical product, to a modern, industrialised model with standardised business processes.

The program includes business process changes, information technology changes, and a shift in effort from the low value work at the collection and storage end of the data pipeline, to high value analysis and interpretation. This is necessary but not sufficient. Equally, culture and organisational positioning are important components of a successful transformation.

The ABS is confident it has the capability and experience to manage the transformation, albeit with some external technical assistance, much of which has already been identified. Key stakeholders have indicated that the ABS 2017 program is well conceived and appropriate for ensuring the ABS achieves its planned future state. ASAC members and central agency stakeholders understand and support what the ABS is trying to achieve and how this is being approached.

A change program of this scale is highly challenging. Delays and cost overruns are almost standard in major infrastructure changes, but the planning and focus the ABS has applied give it a better than average probability of delivering successfully. The recent Portfolio, Programme and Project Management Maturity Model (P3M3) evaluation and reviews conducted under the Commonwealth Government’s Gateway Review Process have given guidance on critical areas of focus and if the list of resulting recommendations are implemented, will guide the ABS through the transformation.

Organisational positioning

As the ABS has moved to address the need to compete in a rapidly evolving environment, it has worked hard to strategically position the agency for the future. Retaining a high level of trust with the community remains a key feature of this strategy. The independent positioning of the ABS has been an important factor in securing high compliance and response rates from the five-yearly Census, and for many other household and business surveys. Among users and providers of statistics, the ABS is seen as independent—an agency to be trusted with confidential information, and at arm’s length from political influence. This is important and should continue. Stakeholders would welcome an improved willingness by the ABS to find ways to meet their needs rather than being perceived as retreating behind its confidentiality and independence barriers. However, the Australian Statistician is strongly of the view that the ABS is willing and indeed keen to improve responsiveness to its users, and is moving in that direction, while acknowledging that the pace of change is slower than stakeholders would like. Stakeholders do not have the same perspective.

In recent years, the ABS has deliberately attempted to improve its stakeholder engagement. The Australian Statistician requires the agency’s four deputies to devote much of their effort to working with external stakeholders. Despite this, the ABS is still seen as insular, inflexible and not listening by many external stakeholders. Again there is a dissonance, in this case between the internal appreciation of efforts to connect with stakeholders and what is understood and experienced by external stakeholders.

Key stakeholders reported feeling largely excluded from decisions at the strategic level. In some cases this has engendered negative attitudes and mistrust. The clear message to the review team was that the traditional ABS approach to managing stakeholder interests within Australia is not keeping pace with changing expectations in a complex, networked environment. Opportunities to gain greater contributions to, and support of, business strategies are being missed by the ABS. The agency is not optimising the goodwill and intent of key stakeholders who want to help them shape its future. For the ABS to succeed as a leader in the information age, it must reposition itself as a much more strongly connected part of the public service. It is currently seen as working with others as either providers or as users. The preferred model of engagement as a partner was reiterated, especially at the Commonwealth Government level. The ABS should do more to ensure it listens and engages in a way that encourages feedback and changes the conversation to focus on outcomes, not just processes.

The ABS is an important part of a wider system. Indeed, it is charged with statistical leadership of this wider system, the NSS. Stakeholders felt that greater progress could be made on the NSS goals of maximising the use, and improving the coordination and usefulness, of official statistics if the ABS was more flexible, and approached them as partners rather than providers. The agency’s current strategy focuses on breadth, and there may be some opportunity for greater depth of achievement among small coalitions of willing stakeholders.

The feedback from stakeholders suggests that the ABS has not yet managed to connect well with those at the centre of the Commonwealth Government (Parliamentary Secretary, Portfolio Minister, central agencies, Secretaries’ Board). The strength of engagement at the very senior levels of Government is limited. Commonwealth Government stakeholders feel there is currently limited opportunity to ensure they can meet the needs of their ministers to be adequately briefed about key releases. Relationships with Commonwealth Government partners could benefit from further investment of time and energy. These key influencers do not fully share or understand the ABS vision or value proposition, and the ABS has no strong constituency of support.

It is the review team’s view that the ABS is at a crossroads. Will its planned transformation focus on an enhanced status quo, limited to improved infrastructure and business processes? Or will it achieve its intent to move to a newly transformed agency that more fully addresses the challenges of its changing environment as a more open, engaged partner in delivering high-quality information for policy making?