Getting to know our Data Leaders: Phillip Gould
In this edition of Getting to know our APS Leaders, Dr Phillip Gould, a First Assistant Secretary in the Department of Health, explains how his long-standing interest in data shaped his career, including roles in both the private and public sectors. Phillip shares his views around issues facing the data community, and the role of data in decision making.
I’ve had an interest in data for as long as I can remember. I was part of a group of students who looked forward to econometrics lectures and tutorials while I was at university. I found it so rewarding to use statistical techniques to reveal things hidden in a mass of numbers. As a lover of history, I was particularly drawn to time series analysis – a sort of quantitative history which could then be used to create an informed narrative. It was also a great time of collaboration, where students would debate how to interpret the arcane graphs and statistics pumped out by our computers.
Following university, my time as a graduate at ANZ Bank only served to increase my interest in data. So many important decisions were being driven by data and statistical analysis, including fundamental decisions about whether or not to lend money. At the same time, I became increasingly aware that data is only one element of good decision making. Too much reliance on data and untested assumptions about distributions and relationships can lead to poor decisions. We need subject matter experts to make the most of data, and these experts need to know enough about data to use it effectively. We needed better data literacy for decision makers!
After a few years with ANZ I decided to do a PhD and spend my time working on time series models. My topic was an evaluation of the effectiveness of road safety policies. I used a lot of complex methodology to prove that: seatbelts save lives, drink-driving is a bad idea and speeding is dangerous. Okay, so most of that was pretty obvious. The lesson here is that sometimes just eyeballing good data tells you what you need to know – we shouldn’t somehow think that complex analytics is better than common sense. I also started to realise that a lack of data, rather than shortcomings in techniques, was the biggest barrier to solving difficult policy questions. This thought stayed with me for years, as I moved from academia into funds management.
The seed for wanting to work at the ABS had been planted. I wanted to be part of putting the right data in the hands of the right people. This is a key responsibility of the public sector. Over my time at the ABS I saw huge improvements in data integration and also in data access. The process of improvement is still continuing, but the data people in the public service should pause and pat themselves on the back – they’ve been part of a wonderful development.
Following on from the ABS, I spent two and a half years with the Office of the National Data Commissioner (ONDC). This was really difficult but rewarding work. Much of the legislation which governs the way we share data was not designed for the world we are living in – it is antiquated and often very confusing when it comes to sharing data. The Data Availability and Transparency Bill, developed by the ONDC, helps overcome this while also creating a national data sharing system. One of the things that struck me during my time with the ONDC is just how difficult it can be to appease groups with different views on data sharing – some want open access for everyone, while others prefer to treat data as toxic waste rather than an asset. Finding consensus in this environment can be challenging and will continue to be for some time.
This brings me to my current role with the Department of Health. The Department is the custodian of some of the most important datasets in the country, including the increasingly in-demand Australian Immunisation Register. We also have incredibly skilled data analysts and governance experts. During my first months with the Department I couldn’t believe how much interesting work my division was producing – from cutting edge geospatial analysis through to econometric modelling. I certainly felt like I had arrived home - data collection, management, governance and use were all central themes. One of the themes to emerge in the Department since the bushfire and COVID crises is our dual responsibility to protect and use data in the public interest. This view of the world will guide our decisions over the coming years, as the Department seeks to safely share its data with state and territory governments, as well as the research community.
I’ve now spent ten years in the public service and can confidently say we’ve come a long way: we are now at the point where there is widespread acceptance of the value of data. This is a good thing, but we need to be careful that the ‘data agenda’ does not become decoupled from our role to provide good policy and services. Data is only valuable if it’s used to guide decisions. Having developed good data sets and improved access, we need to keep challenging ourselves to translate this into real world outcomes. To succeed, we don’t just need data literate decision makers, we need data translators.