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Statistics aren’t in Liz MacPherson’s favour after her Census resignation

OPINION: For women aged 50 to 59, employment begins to fall. New Zealand women hit their peak working years in their late 20s, job market participation drops through their 30s, rises again in their 40s but never regains its earlier heights.

By the time women reach their late 50s, they start to slide out of the job market again. Some retire early, others are just underutilised – as the statistical jargon puts it – and increasingly shift from full-time to part-time work.

Liz MacPherson, the Government Statistician and Chief Executive of Stats NZ knows this better than most. Her contract meets its own untimely end in December (ironically for an office of vital statistics, the Stats NZ spokesman refused to confirm her age).

The problem for MacPherson is neatly contained in the figure: 163,000. That’s the working population of Kiwi women aged 55 to 59 to which MacPherson likely belongs.

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It’s an old number, from the 2013 census, patched with some data from other government departments like net permanent and long-term migration. The figures should have been updated last year when the results of the 2018 census were due, but we’re still waiting for those.

A report released earlier this week details the reasons. It’s tough to move from a paper census to online as Stats NZ did in 2018.

There were serious problems with response rates especially among the poor and populations of Māori and Pasifika.

Despite the warning signs, the department failed in a variety of ways to remedy the gaps.

Since the first missed deadline last year, MacPherson has taken a public flogging.

On Tuesday, she held a press conference to announce her resignation over the whole botched affair.

Her employer, State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes, accepted her resignation but asked her to stay on until Christmas to see out the census repair work.

The statistical hole is being plugged with data from other government departments and remedies must be made to prepare for the 2023 census.

On the surface, it looks like a career-ending saga.

But untimely resignations are not all created equal, and MacPherson has done a lot of things right. As Stephen Leavy, partner at Hobson Leavy Executive Search put it, it’s commendable for a chief executive to resign and take responsibility the way she did.

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And MacPherson’s resignation was choreographed exactly as Hughes – who oversees the employment terms of government chiefs – likes: with the executive front and centre to answer for their own mistakes.

What a contrast the chastening of MacPherson made to the departure of Gabriel Makhlouf from Treasury in June.

When State Services made public a review of Makhlouf’s bungled handling of a leak of secret Budget information, the Secretary of the Treasury was nowhere to be seen.

Makhlouf was invited to answer for himself.

Instead, a clearly annoyed Hughes was alone at the press conference glowering over his spectacles at media questions and repeating hollowly that Makhlouf’s resignation had not been forthcoming.

In addition to falling honourably on her sword, MacPherson also appears to have emerged with the respect of her peers in Wellington’s tight upper echelons largely intact.

Despite the many problems of moving the census online, she is widely credited with modernising data systems and integrating and linking databases.

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Former Reserve Bank of New Zealand chairman Arthur Grimes was unreserved in his praise: “If I was on a board, looking for a chief executive, I’d be very happy to employ her.”

It’s this esteem that is likely to keep her from the sorry career coda of self-employed consultant.

Sometimes it means busy and rewarding projects, but often it seems to cloak a trickle of work that leads quietly to the back pasture.

Former Auditor-General Martin Mathews, who resigned belatedly over a fraud that unfolded at the Ministry of Transportation on his watch, now heads Martin Mathews Consulting.

Stephen Barclay, former head of KiwiBuild, who resigned in January and is now suing the government for constructive dismissal, is managing director of Barclay Consulting.

MacPherson hasn’t made public her next step.

She may not know what it is yet but she may prove a statistical outlier and remain in the data set of the full-time employed.

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