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.
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.
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).