'Isolated, insular, inflexible': ABS told it is too strict in public service review

The Australian Bureau of Statistics must "ease off on the independence" to safeguard its future, according to a high level public service review.

A capability review by the federal workplace authority has found the ABS was too insular and isolated form the rest of the Commonwealth government apparatus.

The Public Service Commission has found government departments think the ABS's strict and conservative interpretation of its legislative framework hampers it co-operation with other agencies.

That needs to change if the bureau is to recover from the recent blows to its reputation: the insider trading scandal and the dodgy employment data debacle.

"Acting independently does not mean acting alone," the Commission warns.

The Capability Review found the Bureau's business processes and information technology "outdated, failing and/or fragile, and well overdue for an upgrade" although the Commission believes that ABS is well positioned to make these changes.


But the Commission says the ABS has real problems adapting to the age of "big data", holding onto its world class reputation, and coping with the changing expectations of the rest of government.

Other government agencies and departments were increasingly making more complex demands on the bureau for detailed information, looking to take advantage of new technological possibilities.

But the review team spoke to other government agencies that dealt with the ABS and were told the bureau was too strict in its interpretation of what it could and could not disclose.

"The ABS interprets the legislation strictly and conservatively," the review team wrote in its report.

"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."

The bureau's internal culture also emerged as a barrier to change.

Although the ABS workforce was found to be "egalitarian", happy and productive with a "produce-or-die" ethos, its close-knit and inward-looking environment could be a barrier to change, the review team found.

"The prevalent view is that decision making was sometimes slow and implementation slower still," the commission team wrote.

 "Some stakeholders have referred to the ABS as isolated, insular, inflexible and at times uncooperative."

Responding to the report, Australian Statistician Brian Pink acknowledged there was impatience in other government agencies over the pace of change at the ABS.

"There is some understandable frustration at the pace of delivery of key solutions to the data access problems they are facing," Mr Pink wrote.

"However improving microdata access is a difficult and complex area and one that the ABS is leading the world in developing solutions.

"These issues will be further considered in our preparation of the action plan arising from this review."


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