Obituary: Steve Kuzmicich, former Government Statistician

Steve Kuzmicich, who has died aged 86, was the Government Statistician from 1984 to 1991 – a master of a craft that, in a New Zealand context at least, he had played no small role in defining, according to Len Cook, one of his successors.

The post was the culmination of a civil service career in which he had been instrumental in bringing the Department of Statistics (as he would have known it ) into its modern form, ensured that New Zealand had many of the empirical institutions that were beginning to develop around the world and ensured that New Zealand received the benefits of the developments in statistical methods and practice.

In the mid 1950s, Kuzmicich he joined an organisation of about 300 largely clerical record keepers, and he subsequently played significant roles in several major developments.

In 1962, the Department of Statistics became just the second government agency to have a computer installed.

Kuzmicich’s most enduring legacy was his role in the 1960s and 1970s leading and championing the introduction of the then radical new idea that well-structured random samples could be used to provide measures of economic and social aggregates of usable quality.

In terms of his contributions as a leader in the organisation, he played a large part in the expansion of the Department of  Statistics  into a modern organisation of 700 staff in the late 1970s, and the efforts to market the services of the agency in the 1980s.

Outside the walls of the Department of Statistics, he played a major role in developing or helping progress in a range of quantitative professional bodies. He was a president of the New Zealand Statistics Association, he worked with a range of demographic academics to  establish the Population Association of NZ, was a founding member of the Market Research Association of New Zealand, and was influential in the NZ Association of Economists.

As the Statistics Commission of the United Nations took shape, Kuzmicich took on numerous international statistical leadership roles. His work in the international sphere continued after his retirement, and his last statistical legacy was to rewrite Irish Statistics Act in the 1990s.

He also worked as a casual consultant for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, working mainly in the republics of the former Soviet Union.

He used to do this sort of thing without a lot of fanfare – very much a “something needs to be done so we’d better get on with it” approach. He was habitually modest in his assessment of  his abilities, but was well known for being highly determined and focused in applying them.

Stephen Slavo Raphael Kuzmicich was born in Napier, arriving prematurely on the kitchen floor of the family home. His father came to New Zealand from Croatia in the early 1900s, escaping poverty and conscription into the Austrian army. His mother was of mixed Danish, Lebanese and Italian descent.

The family moved to Wellington in 1939, eventually settling in the Hutt Valley. Kuzmicich attended St Patrick’s College in Wellington, becoming dux. He wanted to be an electrical engineer, but his family could not afford to send him to Canterbury, then the only university offering that course, so he studied maths and physics at Victoria. He applied for, and got, a job with the Department of Census and Statistics by chance.

In 1970 Elsie Green, who had an administrative role in the Department of Statistics, could not get her husband Walter to accompany her to the staff Christmas party, so she dragged along her daughter Kathleen instead. While Kathleen was waiting at the exit for her mother, Kuzmicich asked her if she’d like to dance.

They were married on Waitangi Day in 1971, and moved soon after to a house on the hill above Seatoun, which remains the family home. Twin sons Antony and Geoff were born in 1973.

He loved rugby, French cars – at one point owning four old Peugeots – and horse racing.

The passion for racing started when he was a boy, when he got a job delivering the race results from Trentham. He would pick them up from the official’s booth, and cycle at top speed to the Trentham telegram station – despite not being able to ride a bike when he got the job. Later in life, he owned several racehorses, sometimes in syndicates with friends.

His death comes at a time when, across government and industry, leaders are contemplating how to use data to understand opportunities and improve organisational performance. Policymakers are trying to come to grips with the challenges of what is needed to ensure that New Zealand is able to become a “data-savvy nation” with a thriving “data ecosystem”. Kuzmicich did much to shape the eco-system of his day.

He is survived by Kathleen, his sister Judita, his two sons, and three grandchildren, Sasha, Leo and Jemiah.

* Vince Galvin is chief methodologist at Statistics NZ. Additional sources: Kuzmicich family, A History of Statistics in New Zealand, Statistics NZ.