Controversial economist Paul Fritjers is always a lively and thought provoking read. Recently at Club Troppo, he has posted on his top five economic reforms that make’ good economics in the sense of being in the interest of the long-run welfare of Australia.” One of them involves the ABS….
I have always found ABS phone staff pretty helpful and there is plenty of free stuff on their site that is reasonably easy to search once you get the hang of it. But, as someone who just paid the ABS $450 for 5 years of data on deaths broken down by exact age and gender, I am not presently disposed to feel kindly towards them. The births are totally free but not the deaths! The good news is gratis, but you have to pay for the bad news!? Moreover, it seems to me that the external spill-overs from open information are great enough that all the data should be provided free. That is not Paul’s main gripe however.
Paul wants to turn the ABS over to private providers. Here is what he says:
Reduce the budget of the Australian Bureau of Statistics by about 90%, reducing it to merely being in charge of running the Census, and instead commission private providers of statistics to generate surveys of Australian businesses and the population. This would involve a quick reduction of around 300 million a year in expenses and would immediately improve the data available for economic decision making.
Why does he think private providers would improve data availability for economic decision making?
The rational for cutting off the ABS is that it is completely secretive about the data it gathers: only ABS officials are trusted with using the full data by the ABS, not other government departments or Australian researchers. We are thus in the fairly ridiculous situation that those who devise the Australian budget in the Treasury do not have access to all the data gathered on the finances of individual industries. The ABS hides behind laws promising confidentiality to prevent anyone else from using its data, but similar laws on secrecy exist in other countries that have not been interpreted as ‘only people in our statistics organisation can be trusted’. Quite simply, the ABS has turned into a secretive rent-seeking organisation that draws huge subsidies but does not feel obliged to share its products with its paymasters. Why then should the Australian public pay for data that is not used to improve our knowledge of Australia? It might as well not exist and if it didn’t exist, the community would be free to buy data from other sources that are more consumer-friendly.
I have an anecdote about my own experience with the ABS and an opinion on why I think privatization is not the answer. About three years ago, I was giving a talk at the ABS in Brisbane. It was actually a talk about statisticians publicly engaging more. Part of the talk involved linking to this modest blog.
I arrive 45 minutes before the talk and managed to get through security. I then passed my USB containing the powerpoint slides to the fellow who had invited me. There was a look of horror followed by embarrassment. “You can’t use that in here” he said gravely. “The IT guys won’t allow it.”
All the PC’s in the building had software installed to prevented the use of USB’s. Apparently, I was supposed to have sent my slides to the IT department who would scan it and upload it to the presentation PC themselves. Their gravest angst was spyware entering their database. This single fear of data security seemed to have supplanted their main mission which is data collection and distribution.
Getting the files to the IT guys was not at all easy either. It was not a matter of walking down to the dungeon. But I will spare your the details.
So the talk did go ahead after a stressful beginning. And you can imagine what happened when I tried to link to Fishing in the Bay during the talk. The PC nearly crashed!
So Paul is absolutely right about the paranoid, obsessive privacy culture of the ABS. It is virtually impossible to get unit record data. The issue though is where that culture comes from and whether privatization would be the solution.
Don’t just blame the companies though. Australian privacy legislation is pretty strict. And I think it has public support. Remember the crazy panic over the Australia Card 25 years ago? There is an unarticulated public fear of information security and privacy. And I think it has recently increased because of the quite real risk of identity theft and credit card fraud. Though people seem to forget that credit card fraud is mainly a problem for the banks, as the customer is not liable for the losses.
So, what about privatizing the ABS? There would be immediate howls of protest about privacy. The government could only outsource this function if they responded by imposing restrictions on data security that would possibly be even more extreme than the Brisbane branch of the ABS. We would end up in a worse situation than we are now, I fear.
In subsequent comments, it appears that Paul has something different in mind - that Government departments and research institutes take responsibility for dissemination, rather than the ABS. He contrasts his experience with obtaining data from the The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children which is not controlled by the ABS, though they collect the data. Virtually all data is made available to someone from a reputable institution who is prepared to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Which seems to imply that
* there is nothing about government provision per se which leads to poor service and obsession with secrecy
* there is nothing in privacy legislation that prevents the ABS from giving out unit record data.