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How public managers can use data to do their jobs better

26 September 2022

News and media


“If you’re not using data in government, then what are you using?,” asks former head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics David Kalisch. 

He says that in a time where mountains of data are collected by private companies and public sector agencies, public managers need to understand how to assess and use data effectively and create a culture that values using of data to shape evidence-based policy and implementation. 

Mr Kalisch, who was head of the ABS from 2014-2019 and has also served as CEO of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, will be presenting two ANZSOG masterclasses – Data for policymakers and Using the 2021 Census for better public policy – which are designed to give public managers a better understanding of what data is out there and how to use it more effectively. 

“The public sector has access to more and better data than they have ever had in the past. It is not an issue about the lack or scarcity of data – although there are a few gaps – but rather to make best use of available data. In terms of designing policy, implementing services, managing compliance programs, effective regulation and monitoring and evaluation of programs,” Mr Kalisch said. 

“A number of these issues were picked up in the Thodey Review of the APS in 2019 which recognised that there was a problem with data not being used effectively. Given the broad nature of the review they didn’t say much about how to address it. 

“These workshops will get into the detail and give some clarity about how data can be used, some of the aspects that need to be kept in mind when using data for a range of purposes and give an introduction to the range of data that is available.  

Mr Kalish said that the Thodey Review did point to the lack of data professionals in the public service as one key barrier to better use of data 

“When you look at the public service and the people who are being recruited, they are really well-skilled and have got expertise across a range of disciplines so there’s no reason why the public service can’t aspire to be at the forefront of data use.  

“However, they will be facing considerable competition for data skills and professional analysts from the private sector and other employers – we just don’t have enough people with those skills in our economy because we are not training enough, and the public sector is struggling to get their share. 

“While increasing data proficiency is important, the main constraint that needs to be faced is to create a culture that values data. If you’re not using data in government then what are you using? Are you using your own cognitive biases, or just drawing on your take on the ideological perspective of government? I’ve had a very strong lens in my career around evidence-based policy and data is crucial for that.” 

“Some governments want to use data to provide the evidence and make it a basis for good decision-making others don’t want data to expose some of the vulnerabilities of decisions that they have taken in the past, or they don’t want data to get in the way of a good story. Some agencies have senior leaders that do not want to produce information that might be confronting for their Ministers. So there are competing strands that public servants are having to navigate. 

“It depends on the culture of government and the public sector leadership. Do they want alternative views and see the evidence, or do they just want data presented to them that confirms their natural biases? Are you looking at facts dispassionately and drawing the best conclusions or are you constructing a data set that fits a particular perspective? We have had too little evidence-based policy and too much policy-based evidence.” 

Mr Kalisch said that some governments were well-advanced in sharing their data, but others were struggling. 

“Legislation to encourage data sharing is a useful signal about its importance, but if you drill down there are not really major legislative barriers to the sharing of data which gets back to culture.” 

“You start by sharing within government and then out to the private sector and researchers, which is really important because if the policy expertise in government has been denuded over time then academics and researchers become important contributors to policy development.” 

He said that privacy considerations around the use of data collected by governments could be addressed by methods such as anonymising the data and safeguards already present in legislation. 

“The prevailing legislation is quite strong about the protection of privacy and there are some in the privacy lobby that don’t have an understanding of how data can be protected, and that most analysis is not interested in personal information as we want to draw out key trends and major influences from society as a whole,” he said, 

Government agencies were increasingly making use of private sector data. The ABS was getting access to private sector data – such as prices scanned at the checkouts of supermarkets and major retailers, and more recently data from bank transactions. The government is collecting more information, and a very important development has been the data delivered through the ATO single touch payroll. 

Mr Kalisch said that masterclasses would focus on how data could be used in practice to improve public policy, service delivery or evaluation. 

“As just one example, the Gonski Review talked about needs-based funding of schools. Previously needs-based funding was based on geography of the school, and that might be an indication of parental income or it might not be. With contemporary data techniques, including data linkage, without breaching privacy, we can estimate the average parental income of parents attending particular schools, drawn from tax data or census data. Likewise, the Australian Tax Office has been able to enhance compliance with targeted data and Artificial Intelligence, and they are one of the leaders at the forefront of the use of data.” 

“We also have greater ability to use linked data sets to draw out outcomes of programs and do some clever analysis to answer questions about is this program effective? is it doing what it aims to do? or in some cases the analysis could show the program has been counter-productive. 

He said that public managers needed to be careful about how they used data, and to be aware of the limitations and gaps that could be found in data sets. 

“Part of the message I’ll be giving is to use data in smart ways, you can’t just crunch data and say here is the result. When the ABS Labour Force figures come out there is a strong focus on the unemployment rate, the money markets often move for a few minutes based on the headline figure and then it settles down as people look more deeply into why. With the labour force survey you need to understand that it is drawn from a survey and the extent of the potential sampling error. 

“So you need to understand the strengths and potential weaknesses of the data sets you are working with so you can use that data for good effect.” 

Mr Kalisch said he hoped the masterclasses would give public servants a better appreciation of how data could be used to help them in their jobs. 

“Whether that is in policy design, implementation, or regulatory and compliance functions. It is also about understanding how data can help them to provide better advice to Ministers, or carry out the objectives and functions of the statutory agency they work in, going beyond the narrow policy function to show public servants how they can use data do their jobs better.” 


David Kalisch will be presenting two masterclasses on 20 October, in conjunction with Professor Adam Graycar, Director of the Stretton Institute at the University of Adelaide. Both are stand-alone, but it is possible to register for both. 

Data for policymakers – This exciting new masterclass will help you understand how data can be applied to your challenges, show you some of the major data sources that are available for policy use, showcase a number of innovative uses of data for policy purposes and suggest some further policy areas where data could be used more effectively.   

Using the 2021 Census for better public policy  – This masterclass (designed to be held after Data for policymakers) will provide participants with a thorough overview of the value of Census data, with particular attention to the most recent 2021 Census and the integrated data products to be produced by the ABS. This will showcase how Census data can provide us with contemporary understandings.