FACE TO FACE: Geoff Bascand: Telling it like it is

You just have to ask Geoff Bascand what he thinks about that oft-used quote – originally attributed to Benjamin Disraeli – that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”. As government statistician, he probably gets that lot. But he’s polite – and quietly passionate – in his response.
“We pride ourselves on telling it like it is. That is quite deep inside the organisation – the desire to put out official statistics that people can trust. If you can’t do that then you are in great deal of difficulty.”
In some countries, doubts have been cast on the objectivity of statistics. He cites problems in the United Kingdom where there’s been quite lot of political controversy around the use of official stats and notes that their neutrality can be compromised by the way they’re released.
“There was some interference around that – [government] ministers getting them before their official release, for example. We don’t do that. We measure, tell it like it is so it’s out there, and then people can debate what it means.
“So you can have discussion around the interpretation [of statistics] but we stand by the quality and rigour of the processes we use to collect and present them. I think it’s hard to get them perfect and it’s hard to say that things are purely objective – but we go as close as you possibly can to try to do that.”
The result, he says, is that his organisation does have good reputation.
“We are highly trusted. It’s very rare for people to come out and doubt the stats we put out. It’s more likely they’ll tell us that’s old news – that we’re telling them what’s already happened. But having good record of what has happened over time becomes very important to understanding the progress and changes happening in the country.”
Far from being dry recitation of facts, he sees statistics as telling New Zealand’s story in way that’s both historical and holistic – covering the slow-breaking wave of demographic change as well as shorter-term changes in economic output, household wealth or labour market buoyancy. And while the 2009 statistical snapshot is gloomier than in other years, Bascand sees positivity in the longer-term trends.
“I’m very optimistic about our place in the future – seriously. I think we’ve got lot going for us. We’re an entrepreneurial people – our data shows we innovate at one of the highest levels in the world. We have good education system – sure there are some tail issues but the overall average is good and at our best, we are very good. We’re well connected in Asia Pacific and, notwithstanding current economic cycles, that is the growth engine of the world.
“While we have those big trends of an ageing population, we’re also very diverse, cosmopolitan population and that in itself gives us links, networks – the ability to work with other races and countries. Also we’re well regarded environmentally and it’s deep in the New Zealand psyche to be green – we just need to put our smarts together over how to do it. But culturally there are some deep streaks there which put us in good place to prosper.
“Sure there are some challenges, but there’s lot to be optimistic about.”
Bascand’s take on the economy is far from uninformed. Most of his career has been spent in areas of economic analysis and policy advice – starting in 1981 when, following graduation from Otago University, he was offered job in the Treasury. Back then, it was “treasury” with small “T” rather than the high-profile organisation it was to become and Bascand admits he knew little about it. Nor, at that time, did he have particular commitment to public service.
“I was lucky in that I got number of job offers and with the one at Treasury I was motivated as much by the fact that the people there seemed very stimulating. They were enthusiastic and smart which made me think it was place where I could learn.”
Although his major had been in geo-graphy, working at Treasury heightened his interest in economics to the extent that he went on to do Masters in the subject at the Australian National University.
“Geography was great degree because as an undergraduate you do empirical work so it always has some data elements and it includes wide range of subject matter – from the environmental-physical aspects to social-developmental as well as economics and demography. But economics has more coherent framework and rigour about it.”
At that stage in his career, he wasn’t too sure what came next.
“I was thinking of maybe being market or bank economist or perhaps even going into the church ministry – and that was serious thought – but I was lucky in that I had good job offer to go to at the IMF [Washington-based International Monetary Fund].”
It was there that his career thoughts crystallised around public service.
“I realised that (a) I liked management and (b) I really liked the public sector and was committed to the difference it makes. And I thought I had something to offer it – partly through seeing bad management at the IMF. But that was probably the most conscious career decision I made – coming from the IMF to New Zealand for job in the Department of Labour’s policy division. It was when I really decided that I had senior management public sector career ahead of me, if I could make it work.”
So career path leading to the church perhaps reflects commitment to serving others?
“Yes, obviously there is personal faith there, but also that sense of service, doing something for others and commitment to social justice. I think there are some public service ethics around making contribution that most public servants have – hopefully.”
There were some challenging aspects to the work and one thing he is proud of is proving his professional ability to do good job for political masters of very different philosophical persuasions.
“For instance I led the ACC market reforms under the last National government and then we had the job of putting the ACC market back together again under Labour – and I was responsible for leading that work as well. No doubt there was quite lot of suspicion whether we could be trusted to do that and I’m proud that our team and department did that. We proved not to be wedded to particular ideology but were able to do professional public service job whatever the government of the time.”
Alongside the specific challenges of public service are the more common people management issues – like handling strike in his department just over year ago.
“I hadn’t dealt with that before so it was challenge steering way through – keeping people motivated and statistics produced while trying to find satisfactory outcome for both the organisation and the staff who were feeling aggrieved.”
He found Leadership Development Centre fellowship awarded in 2005 useful on at least three fronts in that it added to his confidence as well as providing new management tools and inspiration.
“It gave me confidence that I’m leader-manager on par with others around the world who ostensibly manage much bigger businesses with massive budgets and staff numbers but are actually much narrower in what they do than we are. The complexity and scope of management roles in New Zealand are actually very high.”
The provision of some new models and frameworks with which to look at the world was also helpful and the experience proved both challenging and inspiring.
“I did course at INSEAD called AVIRA – awareness, vision, imagination, responsibility and action. It was small group of very senior people and we were just assailed with challenging, provocative thoughts and discussion in very stimulating way. How, for instance, do you deal with the challenges of working in corrupt country… we had huge debates about that.”
He is clear that values are important to Statistics NZ.
“The values around confidentiality, integrity and professional st

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