The head of New Zealand’s statistics agency is determined to realise the agency’s vision to unleash the power of data to change lives as she embarks on her second term at the helm.

Liz MacPherson is looking to tap into the wide amount of data available across the economy, from other government agencies as well as private companies, which can be used to better understand the country and its people.

“Data is the life-blood of decision making. It’s critically important for people to be able to make well-informed decisions,” MacPherson said in an interview after being confirmed in the role through to August 2021.

“In the very old days, there was a notion that we were effectively like ‘Fortress Statistics’ where we had a very clear view of what was required from the perspective of very high-quality, robust official statistics,” she said. “Now we’re effectively saying the underlying data is a product in its own right and a service in its own right, not just an input.

“It’s a huge shift for the organisation and it’s a journey we’re continuing on.”

A career public servant, MacPherson is the first female Government Statistician and the second non-statistician to hold the office after her predecessor Geoff Bascand, who she replaced in 2013. Last year she was also appointed to the new role of Government Chief Data Steward, to help manage the country’s data resource.

Data is a commodity whose value is being recognised worldwide, with The Economist magazine declaring in a cover article last year that data is now a more valuable resource than oil.

The elevation of data and broadening of scope for statistics agencies is a global phenomenon, with the OECD recently inserting the word ‘data’ into its ‘Statistics and Data Directorate’ to reflect its wider remit.

In New Zealand, Stats NZ has turned its focus from being an agency that primarily produces official statistics for government and economists to a broader data agency that collects and shares information on a wide range of subjects.

Increased focus is being put on the Integrated Data Infrastructure system, which links data about people and households from across government, which can then be used by government agencies, researchers and academic institutions to better understand societal issues as diverse as cardiac risk, vulnerable communities and the gender pay gap.

“The sort of integration approach that we have within the IDI to allow you to see the impact of life experience on life outcomes is very powerful,” said MacPherson.

“Statistics agencies need to be really helping their nations leverage the true value and potential of the data that sits within the system. By being able to bring that information together, we can actually provide better services to citizens.”

In line with its aim to be more customer focused, Stats NZ has widened the scope of information it provides, reporting on environmental benchmarks, regional GDP, property sales to overseas buyers, and developing a measure of wellbeing.

Still, there are gaps in the data which Stats NZ is currently wrestling with.

MacPherson singles out waste as an area that New Zealanders would like to know more about but where there is very little good quality data.

To better reflect what’s happening in the economy, the agency is starting to include measures of the shared economy, such as Uber and Airbnb, into its data.

As it looks to gather wider and deeper information, Stats NZ expects to move away from its traditional survey approach and start gathering more of its data from other sources.

“Now and in the future, we will be doing far more what I would describe as data sourcing, so we will be looking to access data from across New Zealand that can help provide us with a real insight into what’s going on,” MacPherson said.

“There are a whole variety of areas where we’re actually trying to get a better sense of what’s going on under the hood.”

In the UK, the Office of National Statistics was last year empowered by a new Digital Economy Act to be able to mandate data from all public authorities and Crown bodies, and some UK businesses in order to be able to provide insights, enabling it to keep up with changing trends.

In New Zealand, Stats NZ has been able to bring data together from other government agencies without legislation, which MacPherson said is due to the high level of trust and confidence that it enjoys. It has never had a data breach of personal information from the IDI.

MacPherson currently has the power to compel people to answer the agency’s surveys and the case for compelling access to private data is being considered here as part of an overhaul of the Statistics Act 1975, which predates the internet.

“We are looking to ask people how they feel about this,” MacPherson said. “If you suddenly have a collapse in the coalition of the willing and you can no longer get access to that data, it means that you’re not able to provide the ongoing information New Zealand needs.

“We can look at what other countries have done and then we need to basically come up with a Kiwi version of it that works with our particular psyche and the way that we do things here.”

The agency is also looking to consult with New Zealanders about what should be included in the country’s list of most important statistics, known as Tier 1, which are approved by Cabinet, and currently including measures such as GDP and CPI.

Like any other endeavour, doing more work while continuing to provide the core service requires more resources. It employs more than 900 people at offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and in the field across New Zealand.

The agency has had some success in obtaining additional funding, receiving $7.3 million in Budget 2018 and ongoing annual funding of $6.1 million to improve the measurement of child poverty in New Zealand.

Still, in a system that allocates government money based on vertical silos, it can be challenging for a support agency like Stats NZ.

“We tend to fly under the radar. When you sit in the background, it’s more difficult to provide a case for funding,” MacPherson said. “It’s far more difficult to actually put up bids for funding that are system-wide and that’s something that is acknowledged and being grappled with.

“We’re constantly looking for efficiencies. But yes, we are under pressure and in order for us to continue to be able to do what we are doing, we will need to be looking for additional resourcing. But at the end of the day, if you’re going to make good decisions, you need good data and you need good insights.”

While its change programme has been ticking along in the background, Stats NZ has faced several major challenges which have propelled it into the national headlines, including the November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake which rendered its head office on CentrePort land unusable, causing delays in data releases and forcing it to spread out across multiple offices around the city.

“We were completely knocked out,” MacPherson said. While there were no serious injuries or fatalities, she said the emotional impact of a near miss lingered on for at least six months.

“We had to grapple with that at the same time as we had to keep everything going.”

The disruption also forced the agency to completely re-plan the 2018 census, its first using a digital-first approach encouraging people to complete the census online.

While 82 percent of respondents filled out the survey online, ahead of the 70 percent target, only 90 percent of people across the country filled in the census, down from 94.5 percent in the previous census and the lowest participation rate for the past five surveys.

Declining census participation is a long-term trend, but this year’s result showed a larger drop and the results have been postponed by six months while statisticians trawl through information from other government departments to double check the data and fill in any gaps.

Information from the census is crucial, influencing decisions on electoral boundaries, and spending on schools, roads and hospitals.

Getting people and businesses to respond to Stats surveys is getting more difficult, MacPherson notes, underscoring the benefits of sourcing data from other areas.

“Over time, our ability to get the sorts of participation that we need and responses that we need from our surveys has become harder and harder and harder,” MacPherson said. “Trying to actually get responses from parts of the population who are harder to reach becomes more and more difficult.

“The issue for us is, is it possible for us to get data from other parts of government across the system. That is the direction of travel that all statistical organisations are going down worldwide.”

Tina Morrison was a Dominion newspaper scholar and worked for Bloomberg News before joining BusinessDesk in 2013.

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