Wikinews interviews Australian Statistician Brian Pink

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is responsible for some of Australia's largest surveys, including the Census of Population and Housing, held every five years. At its head is the Australian Statistician. The current Statistician, Brian Pink, started in his position on March 5, 2007, following the retirement of predecessor Dennis Trewin. Wikinews recently caught up with Brian Pink to talk with him about his first year in the position, as well as his previous tenure as Government Statistician at Statistics New Zealand, and the state of mathematical education in Australia.


 ((WikiNews )) : Good afternoon.

Brian Pink: Good afternoon.

 ((WN )) : And congratulations on spending a year as Australian Statistician.

BP: Yes, it's gone very quickly. (laughs)

Statistical services in Australia and New Zealand

 ((WN )) : So firstly, just for the benefit of Wikinews readers, can you give a bit of a background as to what the Bureau of Statistics does, and what your responsibilities are as the Statistician?

BP: OK, so the Bureau of Statistics is the national statistical agency here in Australia, and we provide a very wide range of statistical services to the Australian and state and territory governments, to business, to community more generally, and we cover a very broad range of economic, social, population and more recently environmental statistics, and a lot of analysis and research around various themes and topics within those general domains.
And my role is as Chief Executive of the organisation, so I have management roles that are associated with running a big complex organisation - a little under three thousand people and a budget of something around three million dollars a year - and I also provide the leadership from a statistical policy point of view for official statistics in Australia, and of course I operate under the authority of the Statistics Act, so I have statutory responsibilities as well under the Statistics Act to meet.

 ((WN )) : You used the word "leading", and I know that in 2005 the Bureau's mission statement changed from "providing ... a national statistical service" to "leading ... a national statistical service". So what does it actually mean to be a statistical leader over a statistical provider?

  ... there was a strong support [...] for the ABS to take a stronger leadership role ...  

—On the results of the Allen Review

BP: I think what we saw there was a change that reflected the results of a review that was undertaken, known as the "Allen Review", that was undertaken as the role of the ABS was playing in statistics in Australia and official statistics, and talking to a very broad range of our stakeholders, both public and private. With the feedback that came from that review, one very key thing that came back was that there was a strong support, and in fact almost a demand from quite a lot of people who were involved with the statistical work of the nation, for the ABS to take a stronger leadership role, and that change in the wording that occurred back in 2005 actually reflected the decision the organisation took, and the Statistician at the time, that they would in fact look at taking a stronger leadership role in official statistical activities in Australia. We had a statutory responsibility to co-ordinate the statistical activities of government agencies, but this was taking a broader leadership role in a whole range of dimensions for all of the different players that contribute to statistics in Australia, particularly from Government.
Now, this means collaborating in some cases, it means undertaking statistical activities in others, it means providing advice - methodological, technological, around standards and conceptual frameworks. It's a very broad range of building capability, as well as undertaking ourselves statistical activity, building capability of all those other players, who are important parts and play an important part in what I call the "total portfolio" of official statistics in Australia.

 ((WN )) : And of course that change was made before you became Statistician, and in fact you weren't actually in the Bureau at the time - you rose through the ranks here and then went to New Zealand for a few years.

BP: That's right, I had six years as the Government Statistician in New Zealand, and interestingly there were parallel processes going on in Australia and New Zealand around the national statistical agency in New Zealand, called Statistics New Zealand, here the Australian Bureau of Statistics, taking stronger leadership in their statistical worlds, inside their own nations, and so when I came back from New Zealand it was not unfamiliar territory that I was coming back to, and some of the changes that had occurred in the period that I'd been away from the ABS were grappling with and dealing with and developing strategies to take that leadership forward, and we'd done similar things in New Zealand so, from my point of view, it was really positive to come back to help play my role in establishing and reinforcing our leadership of statistics in Australia.

 ((WN )) : So the two organisations were taking very similar directions. Have you noticed any major differences between the two?

BP: There's a number of significant differences. Of course, scale's one. Australia, in geography, in population, is a much bigger place, and that has its benefits and challenges. Probably the biggest difference in my role as Australian Statistician and my previous role as Government Statistician in New Zealand is that we're a federal system in Australia, so we have responsibilities not only to the Australian Government but to the states and territories as well. In New Zealand, of course, you have unilateral government, or unimodal government, so there was only one government and there was only one bureaucracy, and so the complexity in a lot of fields of statistics in Australia is made much more complex by the very nature of our government arrangements, and that's a big difference. I think also that the scale means that in some cases in New Zealand we had to try and meet the expectations of society for the quality in the breadth of the statistical services we provided with less resources and less depth of resources in a lot of areas, so that had its challenges as well, but the biggest difference, I think, really was the nature of the government relationships.


 ((WN )) : I thought that we might look at some of the things that actually happened during the past year, firstly just things that have happened with the Bureau, and probably one of the biggest things that happened last year was the release of 2006 Census data. That was the first eCensus?

BP: It was, yes.

 ((WN )) : And I read that about 10% of households used it.

BP: Yes, just a little under 10%. It was the first time, both in Australia and New Zealand that the national Census has included the ability for people to respond electronically. We didn't push it too strongly, because there are a lot of challenges in moving to an eCensus and running it as complementary to the traditional pen-and-paper census, and I think both Australia and New Zealand - New Zealand was about 7% and Australia was between 9 and 10% - were very pleased with the level of response, and the level of feedback from the community here in Australia was that those that completed their census forms online thought that it was a very positive experience, and so I think we've positioned ourselves well for 2011 to try and encourage and be perhaps a little more on the front foot of encouraging more Australians to complete the census online rather than the traditional pen-and-paper, but it'll only be after the event that we'll know how successful we've been.

 ((WN )) : Did you see any significant differences between how people responded between the paper and the electronic census forms?

BP: I'm told that the quality of the responses in the electronic census were slightly higher than with pen-and-paper, and it's possible - it's very difficult to know, but it's possible that the sequencing, which is one of the things that people found attractive in the electronic instrument, so that, you know, you were taken straight from the last question to the next relevant question that you needed to answer. I think that may have had a little bit of an impact on the quality because people felt they've moved through the questionnaire more quickly.

 ((WN )) : Are there any other innovations in the works for the 2011 census, or is it still fairly nebulous?

BP: No, I think the 2011 census, as I said, will have a traditional pen-and-paper and obviously an electronic lodgement option as well, I think 2011 will be very much a repeat of what we've done in 2006, but we may see a bigger proportion of the responses moving from pen-and-paper to electronic.

ABS Year Books

 ((WN )) : The other thing that's happened in the past year is the release of the 2008 Year Book, and in fact the release of all the Year Books from 1908 to 2008 on the ABS web site.

BP: Yes, in digital form and searchable.

 ((WN )) : That must have been a huge effort.

  ... you go back and read history and you find that quite often we're reinventing [...] challenges that people dealt with back then as well.  

—On reading past Year Books

BP: Yes. That obviously started before I came back from New Zealand, but a very large effort, but also a wonderful resource now available, free, on the ABS web site, to all of our community and society, both individuals and obviously it will be a very valuable research environment for historians, for economic historians, for statisticians as well, and I think so far it's been pretty low-key in terms of the way in which the value of that particular initiative is yet to be fully recognised. Probably we need to find ways of getting the availability of all those Year Books, now digitally on the web site, out there and understood by a wider range of potential users. Perhaps forums like the Wiki forum that we're talking about here is a good way to help do that.
Myself, I've gone in and looked at some of the early Year Books, and some of the Statistician's Reports at the beginning of each of the Year Books, and one of the things that I found really interesting was the extent to which issues that we might feel are pretty new and that we've discovered for the first time in recent years, you go back and read history and you find that quite often we're reinventing, perhaps in a different context, but still reinventing challenges that people dealt with back then as well.

 ((WN )) : Have you heard of any results from people looking through these Year Books and finding any interesting statistics?

BP: I haven't, I think that as I said the large majority of people don't realise yet that that enormous resource is there, and I think our challenge is to get the knowledge out there that they are there, and then I think we'll see the use pick up quite substantially.

The impact of changing governments

 ((WN )) : Obviously the ABS doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it has to work in the wider political world in Australia, and of course last year the November Federal election saw a change of government. Has this impacted much on how the Bureau works?

BP: I think one of the really important values of a national statistical organisation is that it has an enduring role in its society, and an important part of that role is to support the information needs of government, and governments change, and their focus can change, some of their priorities obviously change, and our role is to be able to support the information needs. But a great deal of what a national statistical office like the ABS does is to provide a window on different parts of economic and social dimensions of our society that all governments need, and value, and use, and so whilst it's quite possible that we will see some shifts in areas of interest and priority from the new government that came in late last year, in the main the large part of what the ABS is doing will continue to support the new government in the ways that is has previous governments.

 ((WN )) : So have any of the new politicians come in and say "We'd like our numbers to looks a little bit better for us than they did for the previous lot"?

  There are only two people I trust, God and the Commonwealth Statistician.  

—Billy Hughes, [1]

BP: No, no, you don't get that sort of ... I think one of the wonderful things in the tradition of the ABS and its predecessor the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics has been that the independence of the institution is valued by all participants in parliament, current and past, and there's a wonderful quote from a previous - this is going back some time now - but from a previous Prime Minister who was quoted as saying "There are only two people that I believe in this world - one's God and the other one's the Commonwealth Statistician".

Indigenous statistics

 ((WN )) : Also, earlier this year Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations, and this was on the basis of the "Bringing Them Home" report which incorporated some of the ABS' National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander surveys. To what extent does the ABS actually collect Indigenous statistics?

BP: We actually have an Indigenous Statistics Group within the ABS. That was formed quite a number of years ago, and its role is to understand and provide insights into the statistical needs, both of the Indigenous communities and of society more generally in trying the understand the circumstances of our Indigenous communities. The Census of course is a fundamentally important part of our understanding of our Indigenous people, but we have a number of major statistical initiatives that have been undertaken in areas of health and in, for instance, the work that we've been doing with our colleagues in the state administrations in particular to get better Indigenous identifiers in a number of the administrative systems, including over the years seeing substantial improvements in the identification of Indigeneity in Births and Deaths records, working to see better information identifiers in health and education records, for instance. It's not perfect, but the Indigenous unit within the ABS and other parts of the ABS have been working to improve the information base that we have in the society and that the Indigenous people themselves have, that provide us with better information about their circumstances.
I think that's one of the significant initiatives that's been taken, and as it happens next year in 2009 we'll be running the major National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey - it's been run before, we're running it again in 2009 and it'll provide quite a rich range of contemporary information about various aspects of Indigenous households and families, so there's a lot going on and with the initiatives that the previous government and the current government are taking and the commitments that are there to improve the circumstances of our Indigenous population, we have an important role to play to provide information that allows people to shape policies, and then information that allows people to understand how those policies, and the outcomes those policies are meant to be delivering, we help measure whether those outcomes are being achieved. So we've got a really important role to play in this space.

 ((WN )) : Were there any similar initiatives in New Zealand when you were there?

BP: Yeah, there were. I mean, the Indigenous people in Australia are 2.2 to 2.3 per cent of our population. In New Zealand, Maori people are 15% of the population, and so for an even longer period than here in Australia an important part of the statistical activities of the national statistical office there have been to provide and improve statistics for Maori people and about Maori people.

Mathematical education and the "brain drain"

 ((WN )) : Just on a last note, there are reports every few years talking about the decline in certain skills in graduates, in particular mathematics and science seem to be one of the more heavily affected. As an employer of obviously a lot of statistical graduates, has the Bureau had problems in finding candidates?

  I am concerned [...] we're not producing enough people with the skills to take full advantage of this rich range of resources that we produce these days.  

—On mathematics graduates from Australian universities

BP: We haven't had problems in finding candidates, in fact I think we continue to be very, I won't say "lucky", but we've been very successful in being able to attract the numbers of young mathematical science graduates that we need for our business. But if you asked me in a much more general context, both the previous Statistician and myself, and when I was in New Zealand I pursued this as well, there is definitely a decline in the number of kids basically going through high school and coming out of high school with higher mathematics, doing the tougher mathematics subjects as they go through. That feeds through into the universities - we've seen here in Australia over the last decade or more a significant shrinking of the maths and stats departments in a lot of the universities around Australia, and I think that we do, and I am concerned, at a time when as a society we rely more and more on information and the skills and the abilities to design, collect, analyse, interpret, model information for decision, public and private and personal, at a time when we're putting so much more emphasis on the importance of information in decision processes, we're not producing enough people with the skills to take full advantage of this rich range of resources that we produce these days. So yes, I am concerned.

 ((WN )) : And is there another concern with the loss of skilled professionals overseas - the "brain drain"?

BP: Well I think that's gone on for a long time in Australia, and then if you were in New Zealand they complain about the brain drain to Australia. We live in a global world now, and the skilled people are very portable, and so we have to - and that's another reason why we should be thinking about the sorts of skills that the nation needs as you look forward in the next couple of decades of the 21st century - we need to be encouraging the kids through the school system and then into the post-school education systems to take the sorts of courses that are going to be the sorts of skills that the nation needs to continue to develop and prosper, and I think that's a challenge that's there, and we have to accept that a part of the people that we train and develop will go offshore. That's reality, and we will attract people from overseas to come here. So I don't think we should be - that's not what worries me, to be honest. It's getting enough people coming through to ensure that we do have the skills in our society that allow us to continue to develop those skills, those quantitative skills of being able to work with information and analyse and interpret, model it as I said, and be able to make good decisions based on good evidence in whatever context - in biotechnology, in technology, in social sciences, in environmental sciences - they all need people with skills of being able to understand and work with data, and we're not producing enough really well-skilled people in that space.

 ((WN )) : Brian Pink, thank you very much for your time.

BP: My pleasure.


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