Preface

From time to time the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) is asked for advice on what constitutes an effective federal statistical agency. For example, congressional staff raised the question as they were formulating legislation for a Bureau of Environmental Statistics, and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation asked CNSTAT for advice on establishing a new Bureau of Transportation Statistics, called for in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. The National Research Council's Transportation Research Board had earlier turned to CNSTAT for information on common elements of the organization and responsibilities of federal statistical agencies for its study on strategic transportation data needs. Of interest in all of these requests are the fundamental characteristics that define a statistical agency and its operation.

Statistical agencies sometimes face situations that tax acceptable standards for professional behavior. Examples occur when policy makers, regulators, or enforcement officials seek access to data on individual respondents from a statistics agency or when policy interpretations are added to press releases announcing statistical data. Because the federal statistical system is highly decentralized, statistical agencies must operate under the policies and guidance of officials in many departments of government. Not all of these officials are knowledgeable about what is generally accepted as proper for a federal statistical agency, and issues involving judgments about conflicting objectives also arise.

In response to these situations, CNSTAT has prepared this “white pa-



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Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency Preface From time to time the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) is asked for advice on what constitutes an effective federal statistical agency. For example, congressional staff raised the question as they were formulating legislation for a Bureau of Environmental Statistics, and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation asked CNSTAT for advice on establishing a new Bureau of Transportation Statistics, called for in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. The National Research Council's Transportation Research Board had earlier turned to CNSTAT for information on common elements of the organization and responsibilities of federal statistical agencies for its study on strategic transportation data needs. Of interest in all of these requests are the fundamental characteristics that define a statistical agency and its operation. Statistical agencies sometimes face situations that tax acceptable standards for professional behavior. Examples occur when policy makers, regulators, or enforcement officials seek access to data on individual respondents from a statistics agency or when policy interpretations are added to press releases announcing statistical data. Because the federal statistical system is highly decentralized, statistical agencies must operate under the policies and guidance of officials in many departments of government. Not all of these officials are knowledgeable about what is generally accepted as proper for a federal statistical agency, and issues involving judgments about conflicting objectives also arise. In response to these situations, CNSTAT has prepared this “white pa-

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Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency per” on principles and practices for a federal statistical agency. This paper brings together conclusions and recommendations made in many CNSTAT reports on specific agencies, programs, and topics, and it includes a discussion of what is meant by independence of a federal statistical agency and of the roles of research and analysis in a statistical agency. The commentary section contains supplementary information to further explain or illustrate the principles and practices. In preparing this paper, CNSTAT and its staff solicited suggestions from many involved with federal statistical agencies. A draft of the paper was discussed by the heads of some federal statistical agencies at an open meeting of CNSTAT, and a draft was also discussed at a meeting of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics. The committee is grateful for the many suggestions and comments it received. When the report is published, CNSTAT plans to seek an even wider discussion of it at meetings of professional societies and to encourage reviews and commentaries. We hope that, in this way, the paper may evolve further and possibly influence legislation, regulations, and standards affecting federal statistical agencies. As we were completing our work on this report, the Conference of European Statisticians drafted a resolution on the fundamental principles of official statistics in the region of the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE). Although the two documents were done independently, there is a large amount of agreement between them. We note particularly the emphasis the ECE resolution places on the need for independence for official statistics agencies (U.N. Statistical Commission and Economic Commission for Europe, 1991a). Although focused on federal statistical agencies, many of the principles and practices presented here also apply to statistical activities elsewhere, particularly to those in state and local government agencies and other statistical organizations. In addition, this paper and the ECE resolution may also be useful to emerging democracies that seek to establish statistical organizations in their governments. The principles and practices articulated here are statements of best practice rather than legal or scientific rules. They are based on experience rather than law or experiment. Some of them may need to be changed as laws change, society changes, or the practice of statistics changes. They are thus intended as guidelines, not prescriptions. Burton H. Singer, Chair Committee on National Statistics