The departing chief of Australia's statistics bureau says his agency is more important than ever in a world of fake news and believes the public could use its findings more.
David Kalisch, who finishes as Australian Statistician in December, said the bureau was underestimated despite its world-leading status and admitted some of its economic data could be at risk under further budget cuts.
He also warned the mishandling of personal information in the private sector risked creating push-back against the Australian Bureau of Statistics' own data collecting.
The agency's statistics gave evidence for the public and governments to look at problems from multiple angles in the face of misinformation, he said.
Mr Kalisch also believes the emergence of fake news and the selective use of information creates a responsibility to use the bureau's data carefully.
"The ABS is more important than ever in this environment where people are looking to be selective with the truth or just looking for data that supports their particular position," he said.
"Over my career in the public sector, I've been largely focused on using evidence for policy, for research, for service delivery and seeing what the evidence suggests, and I think that's the key for what the ABS can provide.
"There's a lot of grey, there's a lot of different dimensions that need to be considered in assessing the evidence and the ABS generally provides a number of different forms of evidence that allows people to come at issues from a number of different directions."
This created an opportunity out of the growing distortion in public debate for the bureau, he said.
"But I'd have to say it also provides a responsibility on the user to use the data that the ABS provides freely to their desktop, to use that in an informed way.
"I suppose I'd also ask or expect that the community takes more of an open mind to data and seek to understand what are the insights from the data rather than going in with preconceived views of 'This is what I want to prove'."
The agency was trying to give more guidance for people using its data, pointing out its value and uses, Mr Kalisch said.
He believes the public isn't making as much use of the bureau's data as it could.
The agency planned to improve its website and was trying to make its data easier to access using graphics and social media.
When asked about the efficiency dividend - or annual budget cuts - imposed on the federal public service under successive governments, Mr Kalisch said the bureau had responded by prioritising its economics and population statistics.
"Now pretty much all of our social statistics are user-funded and it is getting to the point now where further cuts will potentially put some of our key economic data at risk over coming years," he said.
"We're not at that point quite yet but it's something that we've made known to government."
The bureau's data, when linked with evidence from other sources, led governments to better policy, service delivery and budget bottom lines, Mr Kalisch said.
"Basically a triple win at fairly modest cost, because we're largely talking about data integration, so it's not new data that's being collected and most of the cost of the ABS is actually in the data collection side."
Mr Kalisch said there was a randomness to the efficiency dividend, which is applied across the public service and requires agencies to find their own savings.
"Essentially what you're doing with an efficiency dividend is you're saying all activity is equal, is implicitly judged as equal, and I don't think that's what government probably believes."
Mr Kalisch said he had tried to find a better balance letting governments use the bureau's data to inform complex policy and service delivery challenges.
"It really is something where over time I certainly heard through the academic community that if they were having difficulty getting access to Australian data they would look at data from other countries, and quite frankly I want Australian researchers to be focusing on Australian data and Australian issues rather than overseas ones."
From surveys to retail scanners
Retail scanners and web scraping are helping the bureau to more accurately track changes in inflation.
It is also testing GPS as a way to record freight movements in compiling economic data, satellite data as a substitute for surveys of the agricultural sector, and mobile phone information as a way to estimate temporary populations.
Mr Kalisch said there was nothing new about technological shifts letting the bureau, governments and business use data more smartly.
The changes also brought challenges needing to be better managed, and one of them was cyber security, he said.
"That's really the balance you've got to draw around capitalising on opportunities but also making sure you've got sufficient protections in place," he said.
The balance was being better met by the public service, which had learnt from the temporary shut-down to the census website in 2016 known as "censusfail" and brought on by cyber attacks.
"I think that was a big wake-up for the public service as a whole, not just for the ABS," Mr Kalisch said.
The Australian Public Service learnt to be more ready for cyber attacks and smaller agencies began to collaborate more in improving their security.
"It's fine for probably larger agencies like Tax or the Department of Human Services or Home Affairs, they've got enough in-house grunt to look after themselves, but for most of the other 160-odd agencies, it's quite a challenge and so that's I think where I've seen a very distinct shift."
Essentially what you're doing with an efficiency dividend is you're saying all activity is equal, is implicitly judged as equal, and I don't think that's what government probably believes.David Kalisch
Mr Kalisch said the bureau and the Australian Statistician had to keep in mind the community's perspective about how its data will be treated, used and released.
"The legislation at the ABS is very clear about not releasing information in a form likely to identify individuals and similarly we've got a strong perspective around not releasing commercial information, quite properly," he said.
"So we have ways in which we collect data and to date we've had very strong responses, and the community has been outstanding in Australia in terms of providing us with responses to our household surveys and business surveys."
Response rates to the statistical agency's labour force surveys were about 92 per cent in Australia, compared to 90 per cent in Canada and about 40 per cent in the United Kingdom, Mr Kalisch said.
"This is partly around the way in which the ABS has been able to maintain strong community trust, the community trust that we will use their data properly, that we will secure it effectively and that we won't release their personal details," he said.
"That doesn't mean that some of the other things we're seeing in the private sector and in a number of other instances might not have an impact on us over time.
"It's something we're seeing, the way in which data is not being well managed, not being properly respected, and at times also improperly released that there might be some push-back against the ABS at some stage.
"I suppose the onus is on us to be on the front foot engaging with the community, assuring them that we do have the protection of their data at the forefront of our minds, but also reassuring them of the positive uses of the information, that this isn't just a case of us seeking data, we also want to make sure it's made available for good policy design, for good service delivery design, and for business and the community to be well informed."
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Mr Kalisch, who has led the bureau since 2014, praised the professionalism of his staff and said the agency's value tended to go unrecognised as it got on with the job.
"The ABS is an amazing resource for this nation and I think it is a bit underestimated," he said.
"It's an organisation that, to follow the Nike slogan, we just do it. We don't talk a lot about the capability and the expertise that we have at this place, but I think it is something that governments and the broader community could capitalise on more."
Mr Kalisch said he decided against signing up to another term at the bureau because he wasn't willing to commit to another five to seven years in the role.
"I'd have to say these jobs are not all that easy at times," he said.
"They're quite challenging and I also have a strong view that agencies benefit from having new people that come in with different insights, and I suppose what I'm looking forward to is seeing someone come in and further progress the transformation of the bureau that's been initiated.
"To take the bureau to the next step. I'm not so egotistical to think that it's got to be me."
Mr Kalisch said he hoped to see the bureau in five years' time better able to make use of data innovations and managing the community's trust well.
"I don't want to give the impression that this is going to be easy, it has been tricky over the last few years and I expect this will remain a challenging dimension for an incoming Australian Statistician and for the bureau to navigate this in a changing environment, changing technology and changing community expectations."