Private sector data is ‘revolutionising’ government: ABS
Tom Burton

The use of big private data sets is revolutionising government according to Australian statistician, Dr David Gruen.

Dr Gruen made his comments after being appointed to lead the Australian Public Service Data profession, as part of major strategy to lift digital and data capability in the federal government.

The strategy is a response to David Thodey’s review of the Australian Public Service (APS) that cited a Boston Consulting Group data maturity index which found the federal government was in an early stage digital literacy and lagged comparable governments and industrial sectors.

The Australian government is in the early digital literacy phase and lags other developed governments according to the Boston Consulting Group 2018 digital acceleration index.  APS Independent Review

Dr Gruen noted the use of transactional bank data and employer payroll data as two examples which had given the government a much better understanding of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For a very long time, the ABS has been running the Labour Force Survey, which is a big survey, it’s 50,000 individuals, and we run it once a month.

“And we publish the results four or five weeks after the reference period.”

But recently the Tax Office began sharing ‘single touch payroll’ data with the ABS, which allowed the bureau to report on over 10 million employees and publish results within two and a half weeks.

“If you want to break the data up in a bunch of different ways, you’re much better off with just over 10 million data points then with 50,000. And so that is why that’s a model for the future.

“So that gives you a sense of just how revolutionary it is to be able to get access to big data sources.”

Dr Gruen said the use of mapping mobility data had been also been very useful as part of government’s response to the pandemic.

Good use of data

In his previous role Dr Gruen set up a data analytics group in the Prime Minister’s department.

He said the role of the data head of profession was to champion good use of data and engender support for the professional strategy.

The key measures of the data professional strategy are to establish a data professional network, ensure data expertise and diversity in graduate recruitment and data roles.

“Data is critical for governments to make informed, effective decision making and the ‘data professional stream’ will underpin the further development of a skilled data workforce across the APS,” the head of the public service commission, Mr Peter Woolcott said.

Dr Gruen pushed back on claims the top of the federal bureaucracy lacked the data capability to provide the leadership needed to properly embrace the transformational opportunities data provided.

“The head of Treasury, Stephen Kennedy started his career in the methodology section of the ABS and won awards while he was there,” Dr Gruen said.

“So just to name one, he’s got substantial data literacy.

“So I think people don’t necessarily put it on their business card but there is actually more data literacy in the public service than you might think.

“And certainly the Prime Minister has a substantial appetite for data analysis. And if there’s one thing that motivates public servants, to make sure that they’re doing a first rate job, it is the fact the Prime Minister is interested in it.”

Dr Gruen also defended the delays in getting the new data sharing bill live.

The federal DATA bill—which comes well after most States have passed laws to allow public agencies to share anonymised administrative data—has yet to be introduced to Parliament, after being delayed because of COVID.

An exposure draft of the bill has been opened for consultation with submissions to close 6 November .

Dr Gruen said it was much better to consult widely rather than rush the bill. The bill has been developed after the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Data Availability and Use called for data sharing reforms in March 2017.

Privacy reforms seen as central for better use of administrative data remain stalled. The government last December accepted the recommendation from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for an overhaul data privacy. The recommendation was part of the ACCC’s digital platforms review.

The Attorney General’s department which has carriage of the review and is preparing to announce the terms of reference and who is undertaking the review.

Tom Burton has held senior editorial and publishing roles with The Mandarin, The Sydney Morning Herald and as Canberra bureau chief for The Australian Financial Review. He has worked in government, specialising in the communications sector. He has won three Walkley awards. Connect with Tom on Twitter. Email Tom at

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