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Leading From Where We Are: Reflections On My Time With Statistics New Zealand

Geoff Bascand, Government Statistician, Statistics New Zealand, 9 May 2013

This is my last week as Government Statistician and Statistics NZ’s Chief Executive. Next week I leave Statistics NZ to take up the role of the New Zealand Reserve Bank’s new Deputy Governor and Head of Operations. Statistics NZ participation in the International Year of Statistics 2013 is a wonderful opportunity to showcase, and indeed reflect upon, the great work the organisation has been doing to deliver for our domestic and international customers and partners.

We are now almost two years into our 10-year transformation plan–Statistics 2020 Te Kāpehu Whetū–that will change all that we do and how we do it. Making these changes ensures New Zealand increasingly gets the information it needs, to grow and prosper, both economically and as a nation.

The largest New Zealand government-run activity this year–the 2013 Census–took place on Tuesday 5 March. We are still processing the forms but at last count almost two million census forms were completed online. This puts us very close to reaching our 35 percent online target. The fact that many New Zealanders wholeheartedly embraced the new online option for collecting data was a great endorsement for our future collection plans. The uptake of the online option makes New Zealand a world leader in terms of collecting census forms online. At its peak on Census Day the system handled 130,000 forms an hour.
This achievement is all the more significant because we had to cancel the 2011 Census after the Canterbury earthquake of February 2011. There was thus a lot of pressure on us to deliver this time round.

Off the back of the census we hosted a delegation of dignitaries from Myanmar eager to learn about work we had done in this space–Mynamar’s first census in 31 years will be held in 2014. This visit is just one example of how the strong international reputation is we have built up over the last few years. Our reputation in the Asia-Pacific region rests on us consistently and continuously contributing to building statistical capability building amongst our nearest neighbours.

We also provided the expertise that helped create the processes for collecting, managing, and publishing the Tokelau National Statistics Office’s first-ever consumer price index (CPI) last December. The Tokelau government now has the information it needs to measure changes in the cost of living for their people and inform its decision-making.

We also recently hosted four statisticians from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, and Tuvalu as part of the Pacific Annual Attachment Programme. The statisticians worked on Balance of Payments, Producers Price Index, and business and financial trade data production in order to enhance the skills and knowledge needed to advance the collection, analysis, and sharing of statistics in their countries.

In addition to helping our Pacific neighbours, we are strongly focused on making sure New Zealanders get the information needed for decision-making and understanding. Internationally, the OECD indicates that factors such as health, employment, and social contact all play a part in wellbeing. Using our General Social Survey, we’ve found a correlation between some of the same things and life satisfaction for New Zealanders.

We also discovered that when we surveyed New Zealanders in 2010, nearly all of them (96 percent) felt they could get support from others in a time of crisis. In the previous four weeks, more than 90 percent had seen friends and over 80 percent had seen family they didn’t live with.

We also know that New Zealanders are becoming better prepared for a disaster. In 2010, 18percent of households had enough food and water for three days and a household emergency plan, up from 15 percent two years previously.

Measuring progress is complex, but this type of information does help paint a picture of how life is going for people, beyond the dollars and cents.

One of the ways we adapted our data to suit a particular need was in publishing a February 2012 study about the potential of using cellphone data for tracking population movements after a natural disaster, such as the 2011 Canterbury earthquake. This analysis was undertaken with telecommunications companies and the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management to ensure the types of information required were understood.

Using cellphone data to track population movements can help with emergency response and planning. The analysis showed which geographical areas attracted high percentages of people, the patterns of return movements over time, and flows of non-residents into the emergency zone.

Of course, we are only just starting out on the journey to capture the full potential of Big Data. But Statistics NZ is a great organisation full of dedicated people who are passionate about harnessing new opportunities to provide the information New Zealanders need to inform decision-making and long-term growth.

I’m very proud of the people we have at Statistics NZ and I trust them to take the organisation forward. Our culture of challenging staff to ‘lead from where they are’ is having, and will continue to have, a major impact on both the quality and type of statistics we produce.

Geoff Bascand was Government Statistician and Statistics New Zealand chief executive from May 2007 to May 2013. This blog appeared on the International Year of Statistics Statistics2013 website on 9 May 2013.

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