Publicly available statistics from government agencies that are credible, relevant, accurate, and timely are essential for policy makers, individuals, households, businesses, academic institutions, and other organizations to make informed decisions. Even more, the effective operation of a democratic system of government depends on the unhindered flow of statistical information to its citizens.
In the United States, federal statistical agencies in cabinet departments and independent agencies are the governmental units whose principal function is to compile, analyze, and disseminate information for such statistical purposes as describing population characteristics and trends, planning and monitoring programs, and conducting research and evaluation. The work of these agencies is coordinated by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
Statistical agencies may acquire information not only from surveys or censuses of people and organizations, but also from such sources as government administrative records, private-sector datasets, and Internet sources that are judged of suitable quality and relevance for statistical use. They may conduct analyses, but they do not advocate policies or take partisan positions. Statistical purposes for which they provide information relate to descriptions of groups and exclude any interest in or identification of an individual person, institution, or economic unit.
Four principles are fundamental for a federal statistical agency: relevance to policy issues, credibility among data users, trust among data providers, and independence from political and other undue external influence.
Principle 1: Relevance to Policy Issues—A statistical agency must provide information that is relevant to issues of public policy and useful to a broad range of public- and private-sector users as well as the general public. To establish priorities for its programs, a statistical agency must not only work closely with the executive branch, Congress, and interested non-governmental groups, but also engage a broad spectrum of users in the business sector, academia, state and local governments, and elsewhere. Interaction with stakeholders is essential to enable a statistical agency to continually reassess the needs of its users for information.
Principle 2: Credibility Among Data Users—Because 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 source of accurate and useful statistics that are free from political and other undue external influence. An agency builds credibility with users when it widely disseminates its data on an equal basis to all. Also essential to building credibility is that an agency exhibit openness about its data sources and their limitations, be willing to understand and meet user needs, and provide full documentation of the processes used to produce and disseminate statistical products.
Principle 3: Trust Among Data Providers—Data providers, such as survey respondents and custodians of administrative records, must be able to trust that the information they provide to a statistical agency will be used only for the purposes that the agency has described. Thus, they must be able to trust that information collected for statistical purposes will not be used for another purpose, such as law enforcement or regulation, directed at specific individuals or organizations. Data providers must also be able to trust that a statistical agency will honor its pledge to protect the confidentiality of their responses. A statistical agency further builds trust among data providers by respecting their privacy and autonomy through minimizing the intrusiveness of questions and the time and effort to respond, consistent with the agency’s requirements for information, and through informing them of the expected time required to participate in the data collection, whether the collection is mandatory or voluntary, and the important uses of the information.
Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence—To be credible and unhindered in its mission, a statistical agency must maintain a widely acknowledged position of independence from undue
external influences. It must avoid even the appearance that its collection, analysis, or reporting processes might be manipulated for political purposes or that individually identifiable data collected under a pledge of confidentiality might be turned over for administrative, regulatory, or law enforcement uses. Protection from undue outside influences requires that a statistical agency have authority for professional decisions on its programs, including authority over the selection and promotion of staff, the processing, secure storage, and maintenance of data, and the timing and content of data releases, accompanying press releases, and documentation. The credibility that comes from independence is essential for users to maintain confidence in the accuracy and objectivity of a statistical agency’s data and for data providers to be willing to cooperate with agency requests.
Thirteen practices are critical for the effective, principled operation of a statistical agency:
1. a clearly defined and well-accepted mission,
2. necessary authority to protect independence,
3. continual development of more useful data,
4. openness about sources and limitations of the data provided,
5. wide dissemination of data,
6. cooperation with data users,
7. respect for the privacy and autonomy of data providers,
8. protection of the confidentiality of data providers’ information,
9. commitment to quality and professional standards of practice,
10. an active research program,
11. professional advancement of staff,
12. a strong internal and external evaluation program, and
13. coordination and collaboration with other statistical agencies.
By adhering to the principles and following these practices, a federal statistical agency will be well positioned to provide the relevant, accurate, timely, and credible statistical information that policy makers and the public require.