Once established, many statistical agencies engage in all of these functions to varying degrees.

This definition of a federal statistical agency does not include many statistical activities of the federal government because they are not performed by distinct units or because they do not result in the dissemination of statistics to others. Such activities include statistics compiled by the U.S. Postal Service to set rates or statistics developed by the U.S. Department of Defense in the testing of weapon systems (see National Research Council, 1998b, 2003b, and 2012d). Nor does it include agencies whose primary functions are the conduct or support of problem-oriented research, although their research may be based on information gathered by statistical means, and they may also sponsor important surveys: examples include the National Institutes of Health, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and other agencies in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This definition of a statistical agency also does not usually include agencies whose primary function is policy analysis and planning (e.g., the Office of Tax Analysis in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). Such agencies may collect and analyze statistical information, and statistical agencies, in turn, may perform some policy-related analysis (e.g., produce reports on trends in after-tax income or child care arrangements of families). However, to maintain credibility as an objective source of accurate, useful information, statistical agencies must be separate from units that are involved in developing policy and assessing policy alternatives.

Statistical agencies have as their primary purpose the dissemination of information that can be used for a wide range of statistical purposes but not for administrative, enforcement, or regulatory purposes that could affect an individual (person or business) data provider. Such data are usually collected under a pledge of confidentiality. Statistical agencies may collect information from government agencies in which individual reporting units are identified because the data are already public information—as, for example, in the Census Bureau’s program to collect financial and employment information for state and local governments (see National Research Council, 2007a) and the program of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics to collect information on research and development spending from federal agencies (see National Research Council, 2010c).

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