Indigenous Data Sovereignty
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics Program, led by the National Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics (NCATSIS). The role of NCATSIS is to support best practice in the enumeration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics, and maintaining wide-reaching consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community remains a key strategy in the coordination and development of national statistics. The ABS has a dedicated team devoted to building and strengthening engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, communities and organisations. The ABS supports and is endeavouring to maintain alignment with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in producing statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This chapter presents examples of the ABS’s acknowledgement of and compliance with UNDRIP in applying many of the organisation’s strategies.
A literature review was conducted to explore viewpoints on existing statistical frameworks and research into alternative enumeration and engagement strategies for indigenous populations, using case studies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
Issues with existing data in Australia
The research reflects concern among analysts that current outputs are of little relevance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and are based on the assumption that their wellbeing is achieved through absorption into mainstream society (Yu 2011: 4). For instance, the Productivity Commission’s ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage’ framework emphasises statistical socioeconomic equality at the expense of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and priorities, such as living on remote homelands (Taylor 2009: 118, 122–4; Jordan et al. 2010: 339, 352). Additionally, the literature indicates that outputs from data collections such as the Australian Census and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) do not meet community needs for localised data. Analysts attribute this to data being aggregated at national or state levels (Yu 2011: 2; Taylor et al. 2012) and to problems with the existing ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population’ demographic (Biddle & Wilson 2013: 107). Analysts suggest addressing the demographic issues by applying consistent parameters across collections and by recognising groups within the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population such as native title holders (Taylor 2009: 125; Taylor et al. 2012: 28).
The literature suggests that a lack of relevant official data is forcing Indigenous groups to collect and manage their own demographic data. These initiatives illustrate not only the inadequacy of existing data but also an opportunity for statistics agencies to engage with Indigenous groups to improve official data collections, as well as to assist community-driven projects such as:
- collections of localised cultural and demographic data to inform community planning and longitudinal datasets such as the Knowing our Community survey undertaken by the Yawuru people of Broome in Western Australia (Yu 2011: 5; Taylor et al. 2012: 8, 28); the International Network of Demographic Evaluation of Populations and Their Health in Africa and Asia (Taylor 2009: 125)
- statistical frameworks measuring Indigenous capabilities and wellbeing such as those developed by the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership (Jordan et al. 2010: 347–8, 353).
National and international initiatives
The research reveals a growing interest among governments in developing partnerships with indigenous peoples to develop statistical products that reflect indigenous interests as well as those of government. For instance, Canada has several longstanding survey and research data relationships between government bodies and indigenous groups, as well as health data-sharing initiatives and data infrastructure projects (Bruhn 2014: 16–7). Australia and the United States have also established data governance projects, such as Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Data Archive (Bruhn 2014: 18–9, 23–4).
New Zealand and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) have developed indigenous statistical frameworks in close consultation with indigenous peoples. The United Nations (UN) framework reflects indigenous cultural concepts and perspectives in addition to common concerns such as income and education. One key point evident from the indicators is the interdependence of indigenous peoples with the wellbeing of their lands, identities and cultures (Jordan et al. 2010: 351). This point is also reflected in the Māori Statistics Framework, which aims to measure and promote Māori wellbeing (Wereta & Bishop 2006: 266–7, 270).
Common themes and challenges
Certain challenges faced in the development of data governance initiatives for indigenous peoples are discussed in the literature. These include:
- collection and stewardship of culturally sensitive data (Boulton et al. 2014)
- conceptual issues—in particular, unpacking the concept of ‘wellbeing’ (Wereta & Bishop 2006: 271).
Analysts note that measures of cultural specificity may have limited influence on public policy, as public policy is not easily able to incorporate diverse perspectives (Jordan et al. 2010: 333–5). The literature indicates that this challenge is best addressed through partnerships between indigenous peoples and official agencies, for mutual benefit (Wereta & Bishop 2006; Jordan et al. 2010; Yu 2011; Bruhn 2014: 16). A common priority should be to ensure that communities have access to and a voice in the governance of data concerning them (Bruhn 2014: 25–6).
Key elements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics Program include a commitment to ongoing engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in ABS planning, collection and dissemination activities. The ABS collects statistics about the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and is striving to meet the growing need for data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that are available to and understood by all. The ABS has strived to form a sound history of working collaboratively with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community across Australia to address statistical collection and dissemination challenges to improve our understanding of their statistical needs. By better understanding the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders, the ABS is trying to produce data that are informative, relevant and meaningful to all users. To meet this objective, the ABS has implemented strategies and is learning to adapt them as needed, as well as forming important relationships and strengthening existing ones to more effectively report on matters of importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The strategies used by the ABS aim to:
- improve the survey/data collection experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
- collect data that are culturally appropriate, relevant and of high quality for items of importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
- promote the range of information available for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and provide support for them to use it effectively, recognising that use may extend from issues awareness to service planning and budgeting.
Key ongoing activities flowing from these strategies, which reflect examples of where the ABS recognises the values of UNDRIP and has been proactive in establishing good relations and understanding across the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population and also the wider community, include the following.
Indigenous Community Engagement Strategy (ICES)
The ICES is a long-running ABS strategy that has helped the organisation build a good relationship with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. It aims to enhance ABS engagement with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in both data collection and data dissemination, as well as to deliver accessible, appropriate and relevant statistics to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The objectives of the ICES are delivered by a team of Indigenous Engagement Managers (IEMs) located in each state and the Northern Territory. The IEMs play a crucial role in building relationships based on mutual trust to facilitate honest and open feedback and are actively involved in advising the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and organisations on the effective use of ABS statistics. The ICES also supports and facilitates the return of information collected from the census and surveys back to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in a culturally appropriate way.
The ABS is committed to local-level facilitation and engagement, ensuring continued cooperation and high-quality data for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Under the ICES program, the IEMs work closely with communities and organisations. For example, before the 2011 census, the Australian Statistician championed the need to expand the ICES, resulting in an increase in the number of IEMs employed by the ABS. This led to improved partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and representative bodies, which the ABS values highly. The strategy resulted in good response rates to the census and an improved range of data for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.1 Participation and sponsorship at key Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander events were a key focus for the ABS in the period leading up to the 2011 census.
The ICES program is central to the success of ABS consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. The program is committed to targeted engagement for mutually beneficial outcomes and to achieving sustainable and effective partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations. The ICES network also plays a key role across ABS offices in the delivery of cross-cultural training and raising the cultural competency of staff working or engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Most recently, the network has reviewed and redrafted the ABS Cultural Protocols and Procedures for Working with or Engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Communities. These protocols support the ABS’s commitment to reconciliation and provide ethical principles to guide behaviours when engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The review has resulted in streamlining the ABS’s approach to engagement and emphasises the need to continue managing engagement in a culturally appropriate way.
Roundtable on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics
In 2013, the ABS established the roundtable, with meetings held twice a year. Members are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with grassroots experience of working with their communities. The roundtable’s operational grassroots focus allows it to provide important insights into improving data quality, engagement strategies and statistical literacy strategies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The roundtable’s membership includes one IEM from the ABS, with the feedback adding to the information provided from the ICES network. The regular meetings provide a venue for discussion and exploration of new approaches to overcoming old challenges. The ICES aims to further build its relationship with the roundtable members to harness their networks and expand the capability of the ICES network to engage across states and territories.
Reconciliation Action Plan
An important aspect of the ABS’s active commitment to building deeper engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is reflected in its Reconciliation Action Plan, released in 2013. The plan continues to build on the ABS’s commitment to showing respect for and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, increasing the recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the ABS and continuing to build positive relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians. The ABS’s Senior Reconciliation Champion actively participates as a member of the Australian Public Service (APS) Indigenous Champions Network (comprising senior members of Australian Government agencies) including facilitation or support of APS Indigenous Employment Network forums. In the spirit of reconciliation, the ABS promotes external development and networking opportunities available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees such as the APS Indigenous employee forum. It is the role of everyone in the ABS to follow through with the actions set out in the Reconciliation Action Plan, contributing to cultural change and helping achieve the organisation’s objectives for reconciliation. As part of the plan, the ABS is committed to leading and coordinating statistical activity involving and relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to inform their communities and organisations, governments and the wider community.
Tackling the challenges
The ABS faces a number of challenges in continuing to collect information for and about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. For example, during the 2011 census, diversity in geographic locations, languages spoken at home and access to information about government programs and services raised specific challenges for how best to promote the census to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, communities and organisations. To attempt to address these challenges, the ABS developed the Indigenous Communication Strategy, employing an integrated communication mix focusing on high use of peer-to-peer platforms. A key component of the communication strategy was raising awareness of the importance of identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in the census. Specific messages and communication materials (tailored for urban and discrete communities) were developed, with an emphasis on the production of visual material.
In the lead-up to enumeration, the ABS actively engages with the community to identify staff to support and undertake interviewing, determine the appropriate timing of enumeration and promote a particular survey or the census. To illustrate this, in the 2011 census, the ABS worked closely with local people and their communities to plan the most appropriate approach to achieve improved outcomes. This involved discussions with communities about the best time to enumerate, whether the ABS could employ local people to assist and how to promote the census through local events and gatherings. Employing local people to work in the census meant there were people who knew the community, spoke the local language and could advise on local issues and how best to manage them. The staff were fully trained prior to undertaking census work and each received a certificate acknowledging and thanking them for contributing to its success. It has often been reported back to the ABS that people are proud to say they worked on the census and would be willing to do it again. These people’s positive experiences will hopefully increase the support from the community for the work of the ABS, because without community support the ABS is unable to achieve successful outcomes.
Other challenges currently faced include balancing stakeholder needs in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community with meeting government data reporting obligations and reducing respondent burden. ABS data are used by a wide range of organisations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous, for a range of purposes. The ABS works with stakeholders to anticipate these uses, but there is a tension between specificity, cost and confidentiality of data to meet these uses. An integral component of the ABS work program is the role administrative data currently play in determining population estimates and life expectancy and the increasing role they are likely to have into the future. The ABS is looking to access additional administrative data sources and pursue opportunities where this data could be effectively linked to provide relevant information that might enhance what is collected through our survey vehicles. Additional challenges encountered by the ABS in meeting these objectives—such as capturing the diversity of the population, knowledge gaps, the scale of our survey program and understanding our role—are being considered as the organisation moves forward.
The ABS maintains an ongoing program aimed at improving relationships and ultimately making enumeration easier. The activities of the ongoing ICES program, coupled with high-level government and nongovernmental organisation (NGO) engagement, are central to the ABS’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement strategies. While the ABS’s processes and presence in the community fluctuate throughout the collection period, engagement with the community is always a primary focus.
Engagement is conducted at the organisational level, before engaging with the community, in an effort to prepare and gain support for enumeration, and the ABS formed the Roundtable on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics to further assist these efforts. The ABS also utilises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reference groups and/or technical panels along with local and national champions in planning and supporting culturally sensitive collections such as the biomedical collection of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (AATSIHS).
Culturally appropriate short videos are used on occasion to support engagement and promote participation, presenting a snapshot of what the survey is about and explaining the importance of being involved. For example, the ABS produced a short video titled ‘NATSISS—It’s about me, it’s about us’ to promote the 2014–15 NATSISS so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples could relate to the information collected by the survey and participate, knowing that NATSISS will tell their story. This video was used before and throughout NATSISS enumeration and was produced with the active involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to tell the story.
The ABS undertakes testing of survey questions and materials to ensure these are culturally appropriate and relate to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. An example was the development of a prompt card depicting bush tucker foods to assist people in advising what, if any, bush tucker they had consumed in the previous 24-hour period. This was field tested in a dress rehearsal of the survey prior to being used in the survey’s final enumeration.
The aim of strategies employed before and during enumeration is to increase the participation and involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in ABS surveys and the census. For example, in the 2012–13 AATSIHS, the ABS engaged Australian Olympic champion Cathy Freeman as survey champion to promote the importance of the data collected in the survey and improve participation. A similar approach was used for NATSISS, where a number of survey champions promoted the survey across Australia.
In the lead-up to the 2011 census, the ABS employed community coordinators in remote areas who promoted the census in the community and supported recruitment as well as planning activities such as workload management. In urban areas, the ABS employed Indigenous assistants to support or assist with completion of the mainstream census form, although, given the dispersed nature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents in urban areas, it was often difficult to implement the strategies as planned.
During enumeration, the ICES team continues to engage with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community using existing and new collaborative partnerships with an aim to increase understanding of, and participation in, ABS collections. Where possible, the ABS employs Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander facilitators from the local community in remote areas to assist ABS interviewers in undertaking surveys. Local facilitators are essential in providing a more positive survey experience for respondents and assist greatly with the quality of the information collected. The ABS extended the facilitator strategy to include selected nonremote and regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for the 2014–15 NATSISS to improve response rates. A lot was learnt from this approach, which will hopefully prove invaluable in assisting the organisation to improve its access to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander urban population for future survey and census participation.
Social media is increasingly being used across all stages of enumeration. During the 2011 census, online communication and social media were employed, including YouTube video content from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander census ambassadors and promotion via Facebook and Twitter. Print and radio media were used heavily in line with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience communication preferences. This included media partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-owned and operated media outlets, targeted editorial, media releases and interview opportunities. In addition, collaborations with technical and further education programs across northern Australia offered students working for the ABS, as part of the 2011 census program, the opportunity to receive credit towards their certificate course.
After enumeration, the ABS is committed to returning information collected to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. Using its network of regional offices and the IEMs, the ABS engages with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in local areas to discuss survey outcomes and provide statistical training in accessing and interpreting the data. The ABS returns statistical information using different means, ranging from flyers and fact sheets distributed among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities to producing audiovisual presentations. For example, the ABS is finalising an audiovisual presentation to disseminate biomedical results from the 2012–13 AATSIHS. Another example is the production of ‘Census Story Books’, developed as a resource to promote an understanding of the ABS and the data we collect and the story it tells for a particular region or community.
The aim of the Census Story Books is to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members understand their community’s story on a personal level and compare it with other communities within their region. This engagement tool supports the return of information in an easily understood and meaningful way, and is helping to maintain relationships with communities in the lead-up to the 2016 census and beyond. This initiative helps generate and direct discussions on how the community story in 2011 compares with now, by talking about what changes may have occurred and prompting discussions about how to ensure the 2016 census count is as accurate as possible. The Census Story Books have reached a large audience in discrete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and helped the ICES team to engage with, and gain the support of, stakeholders and members of remote communities for data collection activities, and to promote statistical literacy.
As a national statistics organisation, the ABS has the responsibility not only to provide statistical leadership and share information with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but also to help educate communities in understanding and interpreting data by promoting statistical literacy. During 2013–14, the IEMs undertook a wide range of activities in remote, regional and urban areas with priority given to completing the return of information from the 2011 census and the 2012–13 AATSIHS. A popular ongoing statistical literacy program delivered by the IEMs is the ABS ‘Footy Stats Program’, which helps school students learn about statistical concepts such as ‘data’, the ‘mean’ or a ‘census’ and how to calculate a percentage using fun football-based activities.
Future intentions and options
The ABS is always looking to identify ways to improve the quality and relevance of our statistics for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. With this in mind, the ABS ICES program aims to continually improve engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities by returning data to communities and undertaking activities aimed at increasing their statistical literacy, such as delivering information sessions on data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These relationships and networks play an invaluable role in communities’ understanding of the importance of statistical collection activities and contribute to better outcomes. A recent example involved the ABS working with several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers to unlock the potential of ABS data. This included analysing the NATSISS Confidential Unit Record File using a statistical analysis platform within the confines of the ABS data laboratory.
The ABS recently undertook two reviews for the purpose of improving the quality and relevance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics. These reviews will help shape the future direction of the ABS’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics Program. A review of the ABS Indigenous Status Standard, which includes the standard Indigenous status question, involved significant consultation with government, research organisations and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies and organisations. The review recommended further research and the ABS is currently exploring these options. The second review was of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics Program to ensure its flexibility and relevance in the light of diverse stakeholder demands.
The ABS is striving to increase its relevance to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and to make data more useful for this population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have many items of particular relevance to them as a people—for example, kinship, family and community, spirituality, culture and cultural identity—and achieving optimal outcomes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data collection involves addressing the social, emotional, spiritual and cultural wellbeing of the whole community. This includes applying innovative solutions, developed in close consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, to the collection, ownership and application of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics. Our focus needs to centre on how to better generate this information to provide a closer fit with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ world views, while still meeting government objectives (see Walter, and Lovett, this volume). In many cases, these objectives align, but, in some cases, there is a tension between what is measured, how it is measured, balancing cultural constructs around issues and ensuring statistical viability. Working with our international counterparts in Statistics New Zealand is providing some insight into how the ABS can better meet this changing landscape (see Bishop, this volume).
Moving forward, the ABS will attempt to address concerns in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community about the collection, use and purpose of statistics for and about their peoples. To this end, we are currently developing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistical Framework and Information Model and are using roundtable meetings to seek input on how to shape it from the ground up and make it useful and beneficial to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population while also meeting government requirements. The framework will be developed in close consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to ensure it is meaningful and relevant to them. It will support strength-based reporting of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, moving away from simply measuring disadvantage and the gap with the non-Indigenous population. This is part of the ABS’s role in providing statistical leadership for all Australians while seeking feedback on where the organisation can add value. More importantly, it will recognise the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and cultures and the need for information about their use and maintenance—again, reflecting how UNDRIP elements are interwoven in the ABS’s strategies for producing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics.
The ABS is proactively seeking collaboration across various areas with interested individuals and organisations. An integral component of this includes utilising opportunities to up-skill ABS staff and building an organisational culture that contributes to success while increasing the organisation’s statistical assets through partnerships with research groups and researchers residing in or near Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. By harnessing these opportunities, the ABS will be not only investing in its own staff but also looking to work with partner organisations to build their capacity and ours and together achieve the desired outcome.
As an organisation, we are changing some of the ways we conduct our work, becoming more efficient, striving to do more with existing data sources (administrative data and surveys) and working collaboratively with the research community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In addition, we aim to be more relevant, to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experiences with ABS collections and to enhance Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics. We will continue giving something back to the community in the form of improved data access and better products, improved statistical literacy and also job opportunities. We are committed to managing this change by increasing our understanding of the environment in which we are operating and the new information options on which we can draw. We acknowledge the need to increase our awareness of the changing requirements of our key stakeholders and apply much of our energy to more effective partnerships with them and delivering benefits to both parties.
An integral part of this change is transforming people statistics to be more solution-centred, moving on from the traditional model of being focused on collections, as shown in Table 15.1.
Solution-centred models are characterised by …
Collection-centred models are characterised by …
Primary focus on information requirements
Primary focus on collection product sets
Appetite for single and multi-source statistics
Predominantly single-source statistics from ABS collections
ABS value proposition more focused on statistical leadership
ABS value proposition more focused on data supply
ABS role more defined by high value-adding activities
ABS role more defined by its collection and infrastructural capabilities
Suite of regular product sets based on (and responsive to) information requirements
Suite of regular products based on collections
Source: The author.
Through this change, the ABS aims to deliver the following:
- higher-quality statistics for policy development, delivery and evaluation
- increased responsiveness to information needs, coupled with increased flexibility
- improved measurement of outcomes for populations of interest
- assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to understand data and use them more effectively through partnered education arrangements and tools.
To support this transformation process, the ABS is keen to establish key partnerships around administrative data and to seek opportunities for maximising the use of administrative and big data. We will need to partner with stakeholders to share government data and maximise a whole-of-government benefit for policy research and to develop important statistical solutions. The ABS is confident these developments, together with its existing strategies, mean it is well placed to continue to play a leading role in the future development of high-quality, relevant statistics for and about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, and to respond effectively to the ever-increasing demand for these data.
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1 Despite this, the net census undercount rate for the Indigenous population increased from 11.5 per cent in 2006 to 17.2 per cent in 2011 — Editors.