Statistics New Zealand to start the new year with a new chief

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday December 17, 2019

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The New Zealand government has chosen senior public servant Mark Sowden to take over the post of Government Statistician from Liz MacPherson, who announced she would resign earlier this year in the wake of a highly critical report on the conduct of the 2018 Census.

Sowden is presently a deputy chief executive in the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, where he leads the Housing and Urban Settings group, but has much more experience with Statistics New Zealand, where he was one rung down from the top job for four years. His five-year term begins on January 21 and in the meantime, the acting chief executive is Dr Kelvin Watson, the deputy chief executive for Data and Digital Services.

Deputy State Services Commissioner Helene Quilter said Sowden had earned the respect of his public service colleagues and most recently played a key role in developing a “collaborative, cross-government strategy to tackle homelessness” in his current job. She said he had worked effectively across government, with Māori communities, and with non-government organisations.

“His ability to unify people around common goals and improve systems has been central to his career successes to date,” Quilter said in a statement.

“Mr Sowden is thoughtful, strategic and people-focused with a highly collaborative leadership style. He has a strong understanding of statistical and organisational systems and a clear and coherent vision for, and commitment to, stewarding and evolving Statistics New Zealand.”

Mark Sowden

In February 2017 Sowden became Stats NZ’s deputy CEO in charge of Data System Leadership. He led work towards establishing the new role of Government Chief Data Steward, which was taken on by MacPherson as agency head, and the development of several wellbeing indicators that are used to measure social progress in ways that go beyond traditional economic measures.

From November 2015, Sowden led about 380 staff as the Deputy Government Statistician in charge of customer strategy and delivery. Over the preceding decade he held senior roles at the Ministry for the Environment and the Treasury department, related to organisational performance, operations and policy. He holds a Master of Commerce from Canterbury University.

“Data and statistics provide both government and the community with increasingly significant insights into New Zealand society and play a crucial role in the development of evidence-based policy that can help us solve complex problems,” said Quilter.

“Mr Sowden’s combination of experience and skills mean he is well-positioned to support Statistics New Zealand to lead the delivery and design of the next Census – and to set a clear direction for the agency and the wider state sector to realise the full potential of data.”

MacPherson announced she would resign back in August to take full responsibility for shortcomings in the 2018 Census, which led to a very low response rate of only 68% among the Māori population, but agreed to stay on until Christmas.

“We were too optimistic, placed too much emphasis on the online census, and did not have robust contingency plans in place for when things started to go wrong,” she said in response to a review of what went wrong.

“When that happened, problems were not escalated to a higher level. We also failed our Treaty partners because we did not convert engagement with Māori into actual census responses. Put simply, we didn’t make it easy enough for everyone to take part and that will be a key focus for the next census.

“As the reviewers say, we got some things wrong at a time of great change during the switch to a more digitally-focused data collection approach. I accept the findings. We let ourselves and New Zealand down.”

Sowden’s appointment coincides with a changing of the guard at the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Read more: From one David to another: appointment of new ABS boss leaves a pointy-headed hole in PM&C

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