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Obituary: Bill McLennan, 1942 - 2022

5 Apr 2022 4:03 PM | Marie-Louise Rankin (Administrator)

Bill McLennan, a former Australian Statistician who had also headed the UK Government Statistical Service, died in Canberra on 19 March 2022 at the age of 80.

Bill was born in 1942 in Grafton, New South Wales.  As a child, Bill moved with his family to Wollongong. Bill’s family would have done it tough during these formative years, but it clearly had a big influence on his approach to life and work. He was quick to understand issues that were really important, clear on his goals and tenacious in achieving them. Despite the impression of being a hard head he was very empathetic to his staff when they had personal issues.

He joined the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics (which become the ABS in 1975) in 1960 as a statistics cadet.  Bill gained a degree in Statistics and Economics from the ANU and started working at the Bureau full time in 1964.  He spent all his career there, apart from his time in UK.

Initially he worked as a mathematical statistician on sampling and methodology, rising to become head of branch in 1973 at a remarkably young age. Bill helped to expand the capability of the ABS to conduct a greatly enhanced population survey program. This had a long-standing influence on the availability of social statistics in Australia. Early in his career Bill’s strong leadership qualities were recognised and subsequent postings nurtured that potential and broadened his experience. 

Bill oversaw the establishment of the corporate planning system, leading to production of ABS's first Corporate Plan in 1987. Despite considerable resistance by the IT professionals at the time, he led the use of microcomputers and internet technologies, because he could see opportunities to reduce costs and improve flexibility in administrative and statistical activities.

In 1986, Bill was appointed Deputy Australian Statistician and the de facto leader of the ABS. The ABS earned a very strong reputation for how it was managed, its effective use of technology and for the quality of its outputs.

In 1987 ABS was given the choice of taking sizeable budget cuts or raising the equivalent in revenue from sales of products and services. Bill choose the latter, seizing the opportunity to focus on the needs of customers of ABS products. With a more professional approach to product design, marketing and service delivery, the changes resulted in a very substantial improvement in the ABS’s customer focus.

In 1992, Bill was appointed Director of the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and head of the Government Statistical Service (GSS) of the United Kingdom, the first person from outside the UK to hold this post. The UK statistical system had been through a challenging period. Bill’s arrival signalled a much stronger role for the office. He recognised the fundamental role of official statistics for democracy and that the work of the GSS needed to be better understood. 

He produced the Official Statistics Code of Practice, first published in April 1995, which set good practice and principles for statisticians producing official statistics with the aim of promoting high standards and maintaining public confidence in official statistics. He led work leading to the establishment of the Office of National Statistics. Bill’s time in UK was relatively short, at 3 years, but he certainly left UK statistics in a different and much improved state than when he started.

In 1995 Bill returned to Australia to become Australian Statistician. Bill’s many achievements and strong leadership style are typified by the shift to disseminating statistics through the internet and the website. He also pushed ABS to take a constructive interest in the statistical activities of other government agencies and the use of administrative data for official statistics.

In the 1980s, Bill first developed a stronger interest in international statistical activities. He personally led a reawakening of the relationship with Statistics New Zealand and later took leadership roles across the Asian Pacific region more widely. Bill was elected Chairman of the UN Statistical Commission from 1994 to 1995. It was during this time that the Commission endorsed the first version of the Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics.

Bill retired as Australian Statistician in 2000. He was awarded a CBE and an AM for significant contributions to UK and Australian statistics respectively.

Bill always had plenty of interest outside work. He was an avid reader and a very capable sportsman, representing the ACT at both rugby and squash. In more recent years his focus was on golf. He loved Australia and travelled widely, especially the rural areas. He bought a motor home which he used frequently, usually accompanied by the golf sticks and always some good quality red wine.

Dennis Trewin

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