‘What gets measured gets managed’: Leigh underscores role of ABS in future policymaking

By Melissa Coade

June 14, 2022

Andrew Leigh
Assistant minister for competition, charities and treasury Andrew Leigh said the ABS and Gruen have engaged an independent panel to review and report on its data quality. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

Self-professed ‘stats nerd’ and new assistant minister for competition, charities and treasury Andrew Leigh has told public servants at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) their independent work is invaluable, as he outlined a vision of evidence-based future policymaking.

“It’s no coincidence that when dictators come to power, one of the first things they seek to do is to undermine their country’s statistical agencies,” Leigh told an audience at the ABS last week. 

“Because the one thing that a dictator can’t abide is an independent agency which really tells it like it is. And that’s one of the great things about the Australian Bureau of Statistics — the independence you have from government.”

The assistant minister made the remarks at his first address to the government agency he is now responsible for on Thursday.

He praised ABS staff for their work during the pandemic delivering regular real-time data about the performance of businesses and economic security of households. Efforts to produce weekly mortality data, starting from last year, were also commendable, he added. 

“The access to big data is one of the things that allows us to shape better policy,” Leigh said, noting the work of public servants at the agency was critical for ‘measuring what mattered’.

“[Labor] took to the election a pledge of an Evaluator General, and one of the things that’s going to enable that is being able to measure the outcomes of government policies without the additional cost of running bespoke surveys. You’ll be absolutely critical in that mission,” he said. 

Leigh added he wanted to prevent the creation of major government programs based on the ‘gut intuition of policymakers’, and said more scientific and political evaluation was needed.

“That’s going to require the work that you do being brought in and integrated with public policy, and the linkages that you have with departments and other agencies will be absolutely critical,” he told ABS employees.

Among some of the recent ABS statistics the assistant minister said he interacted with included Confidentialised Unit Record Files (CURFs), the Remote Access Data Laboratory (RADL), as well as the Survey of Income and Housing Costs (SIHC) and the IDS, the Household Expenditure Survey (HES). 

The assistant minister said ABS data had also come in handy for research he undertook to understand Australia’s record incarceration rate, and to understand the impact of the 2004 baby bonus. 

“We were able to show that around 1,000 births were moved from June into July, in order that parents could qualify for the baby bonus,” Leigh said.

“The extraordinary things you can do when you have ABS data that goes back a whole generation, breaks it down on a daily basis and allows us to learn something meaningful, humorous, but also somewhat concerning, because not every birth that shifted is necessarily healthy for the mum and the bub.”

Leigh added he wanted the ABS to consider how the government could better measure the health of the community and the way in which national income distribution was ‘shaping up’.

“I’m very much in the market for fresh ideas, and keen to hear your thoughts as to how the ABS can produce new metrics, things that you’ve traditionally done, that you think have reached their use-by date, and new ways in which you can help inform the Australian community as to how we as a nation are travelling,” he said.

The assistant minister also paid homage to Australia’s first statistician George Knibbs and acting professor of physics, who led the ABS in 1906. And noted it was fitting that the current agency head, David Gruen, was also a PhD physicist.

“You determine many of the key things that Australians focus on,” Leigh said. 

“You shape the national conversation around inflation, unemployment and growth, but also deeper conversations too about the social statistics — about how we’re tracking as a country in terms of our environmental measures, the social health in the nation, the levels of trust.”


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