Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency
Definition of a Federal Statistical Agency
Establishment of a Federal Statistical Agency
Principles for a Federal Statistical Agency
Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency
DEFINITION OF A FEDERAL STATISTICAL AGENCY
A federal statistical agency is a unit of the federal government whose principal function is the compilation and analysis of data and the dissemination of information for statistical purposes.
The theory and methods of the discipline of statistics and related fields and the practice of the profession of statistics are brought to bear on the compilation of data, on producing information from the data, and on disseminating that information.
The unit is generally recognized as a distinct entity. It may be located within either a cabinet-level department or an independent agency, or it could itself be an independent agency.
Compilation may include direct collection of data from individuals, organizations, or establishments or the acquisition of information from administrative records. It may include assembling information from a variety of sources, including other statistical agencies, in order to produce an integrated data series, such as the national income and product accounts.
Analysis may take various forms. It includes methodological research to improve the quality and usefulness of data. It also includes substantive analysis—for example, developing indicators, modeling, making projections, interpreting data, and explaining relationships among survey statistics at various levels of aggregation and other variables. Analysis by a statistical agency does not advocate policies or take partisan positions.
Dissemination means making information available to the public, to others in the executive branch, and to Congress.
Statistical purposes include description, evaluation, analysis, inference, and research. For these purposes, a statistical agency may collect data from individuals, establishments, or other organizations directly, or it may obtain data from administrative records, but it does not do so for administrative, regulatory, or law enforcement purposes. Statistical purposes relate to descriptions of groups and exclude any interest in or identification of an individual person or economic unit. The data are used solely to describe and analyze statistical patterns, trends, and relationships involving groups of persons or other units.
ESTABLISHMENT OF A FEDERAL STATISTICAL AGENCY
Statistics that are publicly available from government agencies are essential for a nation to advance the economic well-being and quality of life of its people. Its public policy makers are best served by statistics that are accurate, timely, relevant for policy decisions, and credible. Individuals and organizations rely on high-quality, publicly available data as the basis for informed decisions on a wide variety of issues. Even more, the operation of a democratic system of government depends on the unhindered flow of statistical information that citizens can use to assess government actions and for other purposes. Federal statistical agencies are established to be a credible source of relevant, accurate, and timely statistics in one or more subject areas that are available to the public and policy makers.
“Relevant statistics” are statistics that measure things that matter to policy making and public understanding. Relevance requires concern for providing data that help users meet their current needs for decision making and analysis, as well as anticipating future needs. “Accurate statistics” are statistics that match the phenomena being measured and do so in repeated measurements. Accuracy requires proper concern for consistency across geographic areas and across time, as well as for statistical measures of errors in the data. “Timely statistics” are those that are known close in time to the phenomena they measure. Timeliness requires concern for issuing data as frequently as is needed to reflect important changes in what is being studied, as well as disseminating data as soon as practicable after they are collected. “Credibility” requires concern for both the reality and appearance of impartiality and of independence from political control. It is the primary mission of agencies in the federal statistical system to work to ensure the goals of accuracy, timeliness, relevance, and credibility of statistical information.
One reason to establish a separate statistical agency is the need for data series to be independent of control by policy makers or regulatory or enforcement agencies. Other reasons include:
the need for ongoing, up-to-date information in a subject area that extends beyond the scope of individual operating units, possibly involving other departments or agencies;
the need to protect the confidentiality of responses; and
the opportunity to achieve greater efficiency of statistical production or higher data quality through a consolidated and more highly professional activity.
The principles and practices for a federal statistical agency that are reviewed in this report pertain to individual agencies as separate organizational entities in the context of a decentralized system for providing federal statistics. Historically, the response of the U.S. government to new information needs has been to create separate statistical units, so that the United States now has one of the most decentralized statistical systems of any modern nation. This report does not comment on the advantages or disadvantages of the U.S. system compared with other models for organizing government statistics. It discusses the need for federal statistical agencies to coordinate and cooperate with other agencies on a range of activities, describes the coordinating role of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and reviews some mechanisms for interagency collaboration.
PRINCIPLES FOR A FEDERAL STATISTICAL AGENCY
Principle 1: Relevance to Policy Issues
A federal statistical agency must be in a position to provide information relevant to issues of public policy.
A statistical agency must be knowledgeable about the issues and requirements of public policy and federal programs and able to provide objective information that is relevant to policy and program needs. In establishing priorities for statistical programs for this purpose, a statistical agency must work closely with the users of such information in the executive branch, Congress, and interested nongovernmental groups.
Often, the provision of statistics concerning a particular subject area is itself a public policy, with the goal of serving a broad range of information needs of private- and public-sector users as well as the public. To establish priorities for such statistics, a statistical agency must maintain contact with a broad spectrum of users in the business sector, academia, state and local governments, and elsewhere.
Principle 2: Credibility Among Data Users
A federal statistical agency must have credibility based on a relationship of mutual respect and trust with those who use its data and information.
It is essential that a statistical agency strive to maintain credibility for itself and for its data. Few data users are in a position to verify the completeness and accuracy of statistical information; they must rely on an agency’s reputation as a credible source of accurate and useful statistics.
To have credibility, an agency must be and must be perceived to be free of political interference and policy advocacy. Also important for credibility is that an agency follow such practices as wide dissemination of data, openness about the data provided, commitment to quality and professional practice, and fair treatment of data providers.
Principle 3: Trust Among Data Providers
A federal statistical agency must have a relationship of mutual respect and trust with respondents who provide data and with all data subjects whose information it obtains.
Data providers must be able to rely on the word of a statistical agency when they are asked to provide information about themselves. An agency earns the trust of its data providers by ensuring appropriate confidentiality of responses. Maintaining confidentiality, in particular, precludes the use of individually identifiable information for any administrative, regulatory, or law enforcement purpose.
Trust of respondents is achieved by respecting their privacy. Such respect requires that an agency minimize the time and effort of respondents to provide information and fairly inform respondents of the intended uses of their information. Trust of respondents is also achieved by successfully conveying to them the relevance of the data being collected for important public purposes. Respondents must be convinced not only that the data they provide will be kept confidential, but also that these data are intended for effective, beneficial public use.
PRACTICES FOR A FEDERAL STATISTICAL AGENCY
The effective operation of a federal statistical agency must begin with two related elements: a clearly defined and well-accepted mission together with a strong position of independence. With these prerequisites, effective operation involves a wide range of practices: continual development of more useful data, openness about sources and limitations of the data provided, wide dissemination of data, cooperation with data users, fair treatment of
data providers, commitment to quality and professional standards of practice, an active research program, professional advancement of staff, and coordination and cooperation with other statistical agencies.
Practice 1: A Clearly Defined and Well-Accepted Mission
An agency’s mission should include responsibility for all elements of its programs for providing statistical information—determining sources of data, measurement methods, efficient methods of data collection and processing, and appropriate methods of analysis—and ensuring the public availability not only of the data, but also of documentation of the methods used to obtain the data and their quality. The mission should include the responsibility for assessing information needs and priorities and ways to meet those needs, which could include the establishment of a data collection program or the modification or discontinuance of an existing program.
Practice 2: A Strong Position of Independence
A widely acknowledged position of independence is necessary for a statistical agency to have credibility and to carry out its function to provide an unhindered flow of useful, high-quality information for the public, decision makers, analysts, and program planners inside and outside government. Without the credibility that comes from a strong degree of independence, users may lose trust in the accuracy and objectivity of the agency’s data, and data providers may become less willing to cooperate with agency requests.
In essence, a statistical agency must be distinct from those parts of the department carrying out law enforcement and policy-making activities. It must be impartial and avoid even the appearance that its collection, analysis, and reporting processes might be manipulated for political purposes or that individually identifiable data might be turned over for administrative, regulatory, or law enforcement purposes.
The circumstances of different agencies may govern the form that independence takes. In some cases, the legislation that establishes the agency may specify that the agency head be professionally qualified, be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, serve for a specific term not coincident with that of the administration, and have direct access to the secretary of the department in which the agency is located. Legislation may
also specify that the statistical agency have its own appropriation and budget. These organizational requirements allow a statistical agency to achieve a strong position of independence and credibility, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient.
Other characteristics related to independence are that the statistical agency have:
authority for professional decisions over the scope, content, and frequency of data compiled, analyzed, or published. Most statistical agencies have such broad authority, limited by budgetary constraints, departmental requirements, OMB review, and congressional mandates.
authority for selection and promotion of professional, technical, and operational staff.
recognition by policy officials outside the statistical agency of the agency’s authority to release statistical information without prior clearance.
authority to ensure that information technology systems for data processing and analysis securely maintain the integrity and confidentiality of data and reliably support timely and accurate production of key statistics.
authority for statistical agency heads and qualified staff to speak about the agency’s statistics before Congress, with congressional staff, and before public bodies.
adherence to predetermined schedules in the public release of important statistical indicators to prevent even the appearance of manipulation of release dates for political purposes.
maintenance of a clear distinction between statistical information and policy interpretations of such information by the president, the secretary of the department, or others in the executive branch.
dissemination policies that foster regular, frequent release of major findings from an agency’s statistical programs to the public via the media, the Internet, and other means.
Practice 3: Continual Development of More Useful Data
Statistical agencies must continually look to improve their data systems to provide information that is accurate, timely, and relevant for changing public policy needs. They must also continually seek to improve the efficiency of their programs for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating statistical information.
Ways for an agency to achieve these goals include:
seeking opportunities to combine data from multiple surveys or to integrate data from surveys with data from administrative records, with appropriate safeguards for confidentiality. When separate data sets are collected and analyzed in such a manner that they may be used together, the value of the resulting information and the efficiency of obtaining it may be greatly enhanced.
sharing technical information and ideas with other statistical agencies. Such sharing can stimulate the development of innovative data collection, analysis, and dissemination methods that improve the accuracy and timeliness of information and the efficiency of data operations.
establishing a balanced data collection program to provide relevant information for different types of data needs. Such a program could include one-time surveys on special topics, repeated surveys of cross-sections of the population that provide regularly updated statistics, and longitudinal surveys that track people, firms, and institutions over time and make it possible to analyze the causes and effects of changes in their circumstances.
Practice 4: Openness About Sources and Limitations of the Data Provided
A statistical agency should be open about its data and their strengths and limitations, taking as much care to understand and explain how its statistics may fall short of accuracy as it does to produce accurate data in the first place. Data releases from a statistical program should be accompanied by a full description of the purpose of the program, the methods and assumptions used for data collection, processing, and reporting, what is known (and not known) about the quality and relevance of the data, appropriate methods for analysis that take account of variability and other sources of error in the data, and the results of research on the methods and data.
When problems are found in a previously released statistic that could affect its use, an agency should issue a correction promptly and publicly. An agency should be proactive in seeking ways to alert known and likely users of the data about the nature of the problem and the appropriate corrective action.
Practice 5: Wide Dissemination of Data
A statistical agency should strive for the widest possible dissemination of the data it compiles. Data dissemination should be timely and public.
Also, measures should be taken to ensure that data are preserved and accessible to the public for use in future years.
Elements of an effective dissemination program include:
an established publications policy that describes, for a data collection program, the types of reports and other data releases to be made available, the audience to be served, and the frequency of release.
a variety of avenues for data dissemination, chosen to reach as broad a public as reasonably possible. Channels of dissemination include, but are not limited to, an agency’s Internet web site, government depository libraries, conference exhibits and programs, newsletters and journals, e-mail address lists, and the media for regular communication of major findings.
release of data in a variety of formats (e.g., printed reports, various kinds of computer-readable data files with careful, complete documentation), so that the information can be accessed by users with varying skills and needs for data retrieval and analysis.
procedures for release of information that preclude actual or perceived political interference. In particular, the timing of the public release of data should be the responsibility of the statistical agency. As noted earlier, adherence to predetermined release schedules for important indicators serves to prevent even the appearance of manipulation of release dates for political purposes.
policies for the preservation of data that guide what data to retain and how they are to be archived for future secondary analysis.
Practice 6: Cooperation with Data Users
A statistical agency should consult with a broad spectrum of users of its data in order to make its products more useful. It should:
seek advice on data concepts, statistical methods, and data products from data users as well as from other professional and technical subject-matter and methodological experts, using a variety of formal and informal means of communication that are appropriate to the types of input sought.
seek advice on its statistical programs and priorities from external groups, including those with relevant subject-matter and technical expertise.
endeavor to provide wide access to data while maintaining appropriate safeguards for the confidentiality of individual responses.
provide equal access to data to all users.
Practice 7: Fair Treatment of Data Providers
To maintain credibility and a relationship of respect and trust with data subjects and other data providers, a statistical agency must observe fair information practices. Such practices include:
policies and procedures to maintain the confidentiality of data, whether collected directly or obtained from administrative record sources, and to inform data providers of the manner and level of protection.
policies and procedures to inform data providers of the purposes of data collection and the anticipated uses of the information, whether their participation is mandatory or voluntary, and, if voluntary, using appropriate informed consent procedures to obtain their information.
respecting the privacy of respondents by minimizing the contribution of time and effort asked of them, consistent with the purposes of the data collection activity.
recognizing the value of respondents’ participation in data collection programs by accurately representing the statistical information they provide and by making it widely available.
seeking, to the extent practicable, the advice of respondents, as well as others, in planning the scope of the agency’s statistical programs, designing its data collection procedures, and determining its data products.
Practice 8: Commitment to Quality and Professional Standards of Practice
A statistical agency should:
use modern statistical theory and sound statistical practice in all technical work.
develop strong staff expertise in the disciplines relevant to its mission, in the theory and practice of statistics, and in data collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination techniques.
develop an understanding of the validity and accuracy of its data and convey the resulting measures of quality to users in ways that are comprehensible to nonexperts.
undertake ongoing quality assurance programs to improve data quality and to improve the processes of compiling, editing, and analyzing data.
develop a strong and continuous relationship with appropriate professional organizations in the fields of statistics and relevant subject-matter areas.
follow good practice, in reports and other data releases, in documenting concepts, definitions, data collection methodologies, and measures of uncertainty, and in discussing possible sources of error.
Practice 9: An Active Research Program
An effective statistical agency should have a research program that is integral to its activities. Because smaller agencies may not be able to afford as extensive a research program as larger agencies, ways should be sought to foster sharing of research results and methods among agencies. Agencies can also augment their staff resources for research by obtaining the services of experts not on the agency’s staff through consulting or other arrangements as appropriate.
The research program of a statistical agency should include:
research on the substantive issues for which the data were compiled. Such research should be conducted not only to provide useful objective analytical results, but also as a means to identify potential improvements to the content of the data, suggest improvements in the design and operation of the data collection, and provide fuller understanding of the limitations of the data.
research to evaluate and improve statistical methods, in particular the identification and creation of new statistical measures and the development of improved methods for analyzing errors in data that are due not only to sampling variability, but also to other sources. Research should also be conducted on ways to reduce the time and effort requested of respondents and to improve the timeliness, accuracy, and efficiency of data collection, analysis, and dissemination procedures.
research to understand how the agency’s information is used, in order to make the data more relevant to policy concerns and more useful for policy research and decision making.
Practice 10: Professional Advancement of Staff
A statistical agency’s professional staff should be committed to the highest standards of quality work and professional practice. They should also be committed to the highest standards of professional ethics with regard to maintaining the agency’s credibility as an objective, independent source of accurate and useful information obtained through fair information practices.
To achieve a high-caliber staff, a statistical agency must recruit and retain qualified statisticians, analysts in fields relevant to its mission, methodologists who specialize in data collection and analysis, and other staff with skills that are needed for its efficient and effective operation. An agency’s personnel policies should encourage staff to maintain and extend their technical capabilities through appropriate professional and developmental activities, such as attendance at professional meetings, participation in relevant training programs, and rotation of assignments. An agency should also seek opportunities to reinforce the commitment of its staff to ethical standards of practice.
Practice 11: Coordination and Cooperation with Other Statistical Agencies
A statistical agency must seek opportunities to cooperate with other statistical agencies to enhance the value of its own information and that of other agencies in the federal statistical system. Although agencies differ in their subject-matter focus, there is overlap in their missions and a common interest in serving the public need for credible, high-quality statistics gathered as efficiently as possible.
When possible and appropriate, federal statistical agencies should cooperate not only with each other, but also with state and local statistical agencies in the provision of data for subnational areas. Federal statistical agencies should also cooperate with foreign and international statistical agencies to exchange information on both data and methods and to develop appropriate common classifications and procedures to promote international comparability of information.
Such cooperative activities as integrating data compiled by different statistical agencies invariably require effort to overcome differences in agency missions and operations. But the rewards are data more relevant to policy concerns and a stronger statistical system as a whole. For these reasons, statistical agencies must act as partners to one another, not only in the development of data, but also for the entire panoply of statistical activities, including definitions, concepts, measurement methods, analytical tools, professional practice, dissemination modes, means to protect the confidentiality of responses, and ways to advance the effective use of statistical information.