A federal statistical agency must be in a position to provide objective, accurate, and timely information that is relevant to issues of public policy.
FEDERAL STATISTICAL AGENCIES exist to provide objective, accurate, and timely information that is relevant for policy and public use. Federal statistics are used both inside and outside the government not only to delineate problems and to guide policy and program action, but also to evaluate the results of government activity or lack of activity. This role places a heavy responsibility on federal statistical agencies to ensure the impartiality, objectivity, and quality of federal statistics and their continued relevance as social circumstances and public and policy concerns change.
A statistical agency must be knowledgeable about the issues and requirements of public policy and federal programs within its scope and able to provide correspondingly relevant information for use by managers, overseers, and policy makers in the executive branch and in Congress. A statistical agency’s programs must also be relevant for everyone who requires objective statistical information that pertains to its mission areas. Such information is needed for many purposes, including economic decision making, state and local government program planning, research to improve knowledge of social systems and behaviors, and people’s participation in civic affairs. A free enterprise economic system depends on the availability of economic information to all participants; a vibrant research enterprise that can contribute to societal well-being depends on the availability of relevant information to all researchers; and a democratic political system depends on—and has a fundamental duty to provide—access to information on
education, health, transportation, the economy, the environment, criminal justice, and other areas of public concern.
In order to provide relevant information, statistical agencies need to reach out to the users of their data. Although agencies are usually in touch with the primary users in their own departments, they may need to expend considerable energy and initiative to open avenues of communication more broadly with other current and potential users. The range of such users includes analysts and policy makers in other federal departments, members of Congress and their staffs, state and local government agencies, academic researchers, private-sector businesses and other organizations, organized constituent groups, associations that represent data users, and the media.
One way to obtain the views of users outside a statistical agency, as well as people with relevant technical expertise, is through advisory committees (see National Research Council, 1993:Ch. 8, 2007:Ch. 7). Many agencies obtain advice from committees that are chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act: examples include the Advisory Committee on Agriculture Statistics for the National Agricultural Statistics Service; the Board of Scientific Counselors for the National Center for Health Statistics; the Data Users Advisory Committee and the Technical Advisory Committee for the Bureau of Labor Statistics; and the Scientific Advisory Committee and the National Advisory Committee on Race, Ethnic, and Other Populations for the U.S. Census Bureau. The Federal Economic Statistics Advisory Committee (FESAC), chartered in November 1999, provides substantive and technical advice to three agencies—the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Census Bureau—thereby providing an important cross-cutting perspective on major economic statistics programs.28 Some agencies obtain advice from committees and working groups that are organized by an independent association, such as the American Statistical Association’s Committee on Energy Statistics for the Energy Information Administration.
Other means to get input from current and potential users include workshops and conferences, which are valuable for facilitating interchange among users and agency staff (see National Research Council, 2013a). Online mechanisms, such as blogs and web surveys, may also assist a statistical agency to obtain input from users.
It is important for an agency’s own staff to engage in analysis of its data to improve them and make them more relevant to users (Martin, 1981; Norwood, 1975; Triplett, 1991). Such analyses may use the agency’s data to examine correlates of key social or economic phenomena or to study the statistical error properties of the data. Similarly, agencies can use web analytics to better understand their user base, as well as to assess
the accessibility and usability of their website and data products. Such in-house analysis can lead to improvements in the quality of the statistics, to the identification of new needs for information and data products, to a reordering of priorities, and to closer cooperation and mutual understanding with data users.
Statistical agencies are sometimes asked to work with policy analysis units. Statistical agencies may properly advise on the availability and strengths and limitations of relevant information. The substantive analyses that statistical agencies produce as a regular part of their dissemination and research activities will also likely be helpful to policy analysis units, as well as other data users. These analyses typically describe relevant conditions and trends and may estimate the likely effects of future population growth or other factors on trends (e.g., trends in high school completion rates, poverty rates, or fuel usage) or the differences in trends from the use of alternative statistical measures (e.g., of unemployment or income). A statistical agency may properly extend such analyses at the request of a policy analysis unit or other data user (e.g., by examining trends for particular population groups). However, a statistical agency neither makes policy recommendations nor carries out substantive analyses of policies that go beyond description. The distinction between substantive analysis that is part of the mission of a statistical agency and policy analysis is not always clear, and a statistical agency will need to consider carefully the extent of policy-related activities that are appropriate for it to undertake.