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Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency: Sixth Edition (2017)

Chapter: Principle 2: Credibility among Data Users

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Suggested Citation:"Principle 2: Credibility among Data Users." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency: Sixth Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24810.
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Principle 2: Credibility among Data Users

A federal statistical agency must have credibility 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 trustworthy source of accurate and useful statistics derived in an objective and impartial manner. With the appearance and reality of credibility, an agency is perceived to be working in the national interest, not in the interest of a particular administration or one set of users over another (Ryten, 1990).

Credibility derives from the respect and trust of users in the statistical agency and its data. Such respect results, first and foremost, from an agency’s production of data that merit acceptance as relevant, accurate, timely, and free from political and other undue external influence. Respect also results from many aspects of an agency’s policies and practices. Thus, credibility is enhanced when an agency actively engages users on priorities for data collection and analysis; fully informs users of the strengths and weaknesses of the data; makes data available widely on an equal basis to all users; and exhibits a posture of respect toward and trust in users. That respect includes a willingness to understand and strive to meet users’ needs, even though users may not clearly articulate them. Credibility is further enhanced when an agency shows commitment to quality and professional practice and maintains a strong internal and external evaluation program to assess and improve its statistical programs, methods, and processes.

Suggested Citation:"Principle 2: Credibility among Data Users." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency: Sixth Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24810.
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Essential to credibility is that a statistical agency’s website be as accessible as possible for locating, working with, and understanding the strengths and limitations of the agency’s data. Such accessibility—fully tested with a broad array of users—recognizes the central role of users as the ultimate consumers of a statistical agency’s products.

An agency’s website, as its primary means of communication with users, should have readily accessible information about its policies on such topics as confidentiality and privacy protection; scientific integrity; standards for data quality and for documenting sources of error in data collections and estimation models; procedures and schedules for the release of new and continuing data series; procedures for timely notice of errors and corrections to previously released data; and procedures and schedules for archiving historical data. Links to policies of an agency’s parent department or independent agency that clearly specify the authority that is delegated to the statistical agency also enhance credibility and build trust with users.

Today, with many alternate sources of data available and with public trust in many government institutions at a low ebb,29 it is undeniably challenging for a statistical agency to be perceived as credible and trustworthy. Statistical agencies, individually and collectively, need to respond proactively to this challenge, seeking input from knowledgeable data users on how best to do so.

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29 A 2012–2013 Gallup survey, commissioned by several federal statistical agencies, asked respondents whether they had “a great deal/quite a lot” of confidence for several institutions. The results were 70 percent for the military, 50 percent for universities, 25–30 percent for federal statistical agencies and newspapers, and 10 percent for Congress (Childs et al., 2015).

Suggested Citation:"Principle 2: Credibility among Data Users." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency: Sixth Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24810.
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Page 45
Suggested Citation:"Principle 2: Credibility among Data Users." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency: Sixth Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24810.
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Page 46
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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. Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency: Sixth Edition presents and comments on these principles as they’ve been impacted by changes in laws, regulations, and other aspects of the environment of federal statistical agencies over the past 4 years.

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