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

Chapter: Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence

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Suggested Citation:"Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence." 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 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence

A federal statistical agency must be independent from political and other undue external influence in developing, producing, and disseminating statistics.

THE REASON FOR A STATISTICAL AGENCY to exist is to serve as a trustworthy source of objective, relevant, accurate, and timely information for decision makers, analysts, and others—both inside and outside the government—to help them understand present conditions, draw comparisons with the past, and guide plans for the future.33 For these purposes, it is essential that a statistical agency be distinct from those parts of a department that carry out administrative, regulatory, law enforcement, or policy-making activities. It is also essential that a statistical agency have a widely acknowledged position of independence from political and other undue external influence in developing, producing, and disseminating statistics, together with the necessary authority to protect independence (see Practice 2). A statistical agency actively works to obtain a broad range of external input to develop its programs and for its programs to be relevant to policy needs: “undue external influences” are those from outside the agency that seek to undermine its impartiality, nonpartisanship, and professional judgment.

A statistical agency must be able to execute its mission without being subject to pressures to advance a political agenda. It must be impartial

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33 See United Nations Statistical Commission (2014), European Statistical System Committee (2011), and U.S. Office of Management and Budget (2014b).

Suggested Citation:"Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence." 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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and avoid even the appearance that its collection, analysis, and reporting processes might be manipulated for political purposes or that individually identifiable data collected under a pledge of confidentiality might be turned over for nonstatistical purposes. Independence from any undue outside influence is an essential element of credibility with data users and the public and of trust among data providers.

The independence of a statistical agency is exercised in a broad framework. Legislative authority usually gives ultimate responsibility to the secretary of the department rather than to the head of the statistical agency. In addition, a statistical agency is subject to the normal budgetary processes and to various coordinating and review functions of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, as well as the legislative mandates and oversight of Congress. Within this broad framework, a statistical agency has to maintain its credibility as an impartial purveyor of information. In the long run, the effectiveness of an agency depends on its maintaining a reputation for impartiality: thus, an agency must be continually alert to possible infringements on its credibility and be prepared to argue strenuously against such infringements.

For an agency head, independence and protection from undue political influence can be strengthened by the method of the person’s appointment. Two methods that can bolster the professional independence of an agency head are appointment by the President with confirmation by the Senate for a fixed term, as is the case for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the U.S. Census Bureau, and departmental appointment of a career civil servant.34

For a fixed term, it is desirable that it not coincide with the presidential term so that professional considerations, rather than political ones, are more likely to be paramount in the appointment process. Appointment by the President with Senate confirmation for a term that is at the pleasure of the President, as is the case for the head of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), is not ideal for agency independence. However, EIA does have strong legislative protection for the authority of its administrator.

In 2012, the heads of two agencies, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), were changed from presidential appointees with Senate confirmation (the NCES commissioner

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34 Agencies headed by career civil servants, many of whom hold their positions for long periods of time, include the Bureau of Economic Analysis; the Bureau of Transportation Statistics; the Economic Research Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the National Agricultural Statistics Service; the National Center for Health Statistics; the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics; the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics in the Social Security Administration; and the Statistics of Income Division in the Internal Revenue Service.

Suggested Citation:"Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence." 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.
×

having a fixed term) to presidential appointees.35 The consequences for the independence of these two agencies are not clear. However, the change can be viewed as part of the “layering of statistical agencies,” that is, positioning them lower in their department’s administrative structure, which National Research Council (2009:226) identified as “a subtle, but increasingly common” threat to independence.

It is valuable for the head of a statistical agency to have direct access to the secretary of the department or the head of the independent agency in which the statistical agency is located. Such access allows the head to inform new secretaries about the role of a statistical agency and be able to directly present the case for new or changed statistical initiatives. Such direct access currently is provided by legislation for BLS and EIA but not for other agencies, which are often several administrative rungs below the secretary (see Figure I.2).

A statistical agency should have its own funding appropriation from Congress and not be dependent on allocations from the budget of its parent department or agency, which may be subject to reallocation. In addition, it can be helpful when a specified percentage of a department’s budget is set aside for its statistical agency, which signals the importance of the statistical agency function.

While such organizational aspects as direct access to the secretary of the agency’s department and separate budgetary authority facilitate a strong position of independence, they are neither necessary nor sufficient. In that regard, agencies can do much to maintain their independence through other practices, procedures, and policies.

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35 This change for BJS and NCES was part of the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-166), which made a large number of subcabinet-level posts presidential appointments that no longer required Senate confirmation. The act also provided that the director of the Census Bureau remain a presidential appointee with Senate confirmation but have a fixed 5-year term (with one renewal permitted) for terms beginning on January 1 of years ending in 2 and 7. Previously, the Census Bureau director served at the pleasure of the President.

Suggested Citation:"Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence." 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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Suggested Citation:"Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence." 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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Suggested Citation:"Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence." 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.
×
Page 52
Suggested Citation:"Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence." 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.
×
Page 53
Suggested Citation:"Principle 4: Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence." 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.
×
Page 54
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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.Β 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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