Census debate needs to expand to cover the future of the ABS

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There is presently considerable discussion and reporting about the future of Australia’s national census, sparked by suggestions to change from a five to 10-year cycle.

While it’s important to consider the ongoing nature and format of this major information gathering exercise, the debate needs to be much wider. The real question we are facing centres on the very future of the Australian Bureau of Statistics itself.

The last census cost taxpayers $440 million and involved 29,000 collectors who delivered 14.2 million forms to more than 9.8 million households. The result was a detailed and valuable snapshot of Australia and its population. The next census is due to be undertaken in 2016.

Current debate has centred on whether money should be saved by conducting a national census every 10 (rather than five) years. Some commentators have pointed out that the saved funds could be used to upgrade the ABS’s core IT systems and better prepare it for the future.

However discussions need to go way beyond the future of the census. We need to be considering the most effective and efficient ways of collecting information and ensuring it adds real value to our nation.

As part of this analysis, we need to take a critical look at the ABS. In an increasingly data-driven world, its role and methods need to be reviewed. As other government agencies increase their data gathering activities and capabilities, it is important that the central function and role of the ABS evolves to incorporate these data directions.

The ABS is increasingly hamstrung because of the legislated need to scrub collected data to ensure individuals cannot be identified. While there is no question the privacy of the individual must be protected, ‘de-anomolising’ data makes it very difficult to incorporate data from other agencies which has been collected and processed in a different way.

One option being canvassed is an amalgamation of the ABS with another agency, such as the Institute of Health and Welfare. If this were to occur, data from a range of sources could more readily be combined and analysed. Potential sources include Medicare, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Tax Office.

Such a centralised store of multi-agency data would become a very valuable resource. Taking an open data strategy such as this would also create new opportunities for individuals and businesses to gain fresh insights by using data that is much more up to date than that captured by a census.

The change would allow the ABS, in its new form, to provide valuable insights that previously would not have been possible. As a result, the need for a traditional census to be conducted every five years would be lessened if not removed altogether.

Rather than relying on data collected every five years, making better use of sampling exercises and real-time data flows from a number of agencies can provide more accurate and valuable insights.

By evolving its role in this way, and becoming an expanded peak body for information gathering and analysis, the ABS can ensure it remains relevant and valuable in coming decades.

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