PROTECTION FROM POLITICAL and other undue external inﬂuence over a statistical agency’s data collection, production, and dissemination requires that an agency has the necessary authority for professional decisions in key aspects of its work. Only with such authority can a statistical agency establish and maintain its reputation for objectivity and quality in carrying out its mission to inform policy makers and the public. Within the limits of budgetary resources, departmental requirements, review by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and congressional mandates (see “Limits on Authority,” below), a statistical agency requires the following:
- authority for professional decisions over the scope, content, and frequency of data compiled, analyzed, and published within the framework set by an agency’s authorizing legislation;
- authority for the statistical agency head and qualified staff to discuss the agency’s statistics with members of Congress, congressional staff, and in appropriate public forums;
- authority for selection and promotion of professional, technical, and operational staff;
- authority to control information technology (IT) systems to securely maintain the integrity and confidentiality of individual records and reliably support timely and accurate production of key statistics; and
- authority—and recognition by policy officials outside the statistical agency of that authority—to release statistical information, including
accompanying press releases and documentation, without prior clearance regarding the statistical content of the release.36
Necessary authority may come from legislation, OMB directives, and policies and practices that are communicated by agency leadership to political appointees. The two most recent additions to the policies that help protect statistical agency independence are: (1) “Statement of Commitment to Scientific Integrity by Principal Statistical Agencies;”37 and (2) Statistical Policy Directive No. 1 (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2014b). The statement affirms the agencies’ commitment to the principles and practices in National Research Council (2009c), OMB statistical policy directives, and guidelines required by the Information Quality Act, all of which uphold the necessity for statistical agency independence from undue outside inﬂuence. The directive affirms the need for statistical agency autonomy in professional decisions and the obligation of departments to support their statistical agencies in this regard (see Appendix A).
ASPECTS OF INDEPENDENCE
Authority to decide the scope and specific content of the data collected or compiled, within the scope of a statistical agency’s mission, and to make decisions about technical aspects of data collection programs is an important element of independence. Similarly, authority for a statistical agency head and qualified staff to discuss the agency’s statistics with members of Congress, congressional staff, and appropriate public entities helps to maintain an agency’s standing.
Another important aspect of independence is control over personnel actions, especially the selection of qualified professional staff, including senior executive career staff. Agency staff who report directly to the agency head should have formal education and deep experience in the substantive, methodological, operational, and management issues facing the agency as appropriate for their positions. For the head of a statistical agency, professional qualifications are of the utmost importance, whether the profession is that of statistician or a relevant subject-matter field (National Research Council, 1997b). Relevant professional associations can be a source of valuable input about suitable candidates.
The authority to ensure that IT systems fulfill the specialized needs of a statistical agency is another important aspect of independence. A statistical agency must be able to vouch for the integrity, confidentiality, and impartiality of the information collected and maintained under its
authority so that it retains the trust of its data providers and data users (see Practices 6, 7, and 8). Such trust is fostered when a statistical agency has control over its IT resources, and there is no opportunity or perception that policy, program, or regulatory agencies could gain access to records of individual respondents.
A statistical agency also needs control over its IT resources to support timely and accurate release of official statistics, which are often produced under stringent deadlines. To streamline and increase the efficiency of the acquisition, upgrading, and use of IT resources across the federal government, the 2014 Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) gave IT authority to the chief information officer (CIO) of each cabinet department. Recognizing the special needs of statistical agencies, guidance for FITARA implementation includes an attachment that spells out ways in which CIOs are expected to work together with statistical agency heads to ensure that IT decisions and policies of the CIO appropriately support the agencies. The attachment explicitly states that implementation of FITARA must ensure that statistical information acquired under a pledge of confidentiality is used only for statistical purposes (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2016b; see also Appendix A).
Authority to release statistical information and accompanying materials (including press releases) without prior clearance for the statistical content by department policy officials is essential so that there is no opportunity for or perception of political manipulation of any of the information.38 When a statistical agency releases information publicly, a clear distinction should be made between the statistical information and any policy interpretations of it. Not even the appearance of manipulation for political purposes should be allowed. This essential requirement is one reason that statistical agencies are required by Statistical Policy Directive No. 3 (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 1985) to adhere to predetermined schedules for the public release of key economic indicators and to take steps to ensure that no person outside the agency has access to such indicators before the official release time except under carefully specified conditions.39Statistical Policy Directive
38 The Energy Information Agency had its independence authorized in this regard in Section 205 of the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977; 42 USC 7135(d)): “The Administrator [of EIA] shall not be required to obtain the approval of any other officer or employee of the Department in connection with the collection or analysis of any information; nor shall the Administrator be required, prior to publication, to obtain the approval of any other officer or employee of the United States with respect to the substance of any statistical or forecasting technical reports which he has prepared in accordance with law.” The Bureau of Transportation Statistics had its independence similarly strengthened in Section 6017 of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act (P.L. 114-94).
39 The economic indicators are given to the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers as soon as they are available and, through the chair, to the President. At the determination of the issuing statistical agency, they may also be provided to others under strict conditions to ensure
No. 4 (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2008) requires agencies to develop and publish schedules for release of other important social and economic indicators and to announce and explain any changes in schedules as far in advance as possible (see Appendix A).
For press releases, Statistical Policy Directive No. 4 (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2008) encourages statistical agencies to use them to publicize and thereby expand the dissemination of data to the public. The directive states: “statistical press releases must be produced and issued by the statistical agency and must provide a policy-neutral description of the data.” Policy pronouncements must be issued separately by executive branch policy officials and not by the statistical agency, and “policy officials of the issuing department may review the draft statistical press release [solely] to ensure that it does not include policy pronouncements.”
Statistical agencies should also have dissemination policies that foster regular, frequent release of major findings from the agency’s programs to the public through the traditional media, the Internet, and other means. In these ways, an agency can guard against even the perception of political and other undue external inﬂuence that might inhibit or bias its operations.
LIMITS ON AUTHORITY
The authority for a statistical agency to decide on the data collected or compiled can never be without limits. Congress may specify particular data to be collected (e.g., data on job openings and labor turnover by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, data on family farms by the Economic Research Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service). For the decennial census, Congress requires an opportunity to review the proposed questions.
The OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, under the Paperwork Reduction Act, is responsible for designating a single data collection instrument for information wanted by two or more agencies. It is also responsible under the same act for reviewing all questionnaires and other instruments for the collection of data from 10 or more respondents to determine whether they meet applicable standards and are well justified (see Appendix A). The courts sometimes become involved in interpreting laws and regulations that affect statistical agencies, as in issues concerning data confidentiality, Freedom of Information Act requests, and the use of sampling in the population census.
The budgetary constraints on statistical agencies and OMB’s review of data collections are ongoing. Other pressures depend, in part at least, on the relations between a statistical agency and the people or entities that have
there is no unauthorized dissemination or use. Executive branch officials outside the issuing agency may not comment on indicators until at least 1 hour after they are publicly released.
supervisory or oversight functions for them. Agencies need to enhance their skills in communicating to oversight groups the need for statistical series and in estimating the costs of statistical work in a credible manner. In turn, although it is standard practice for the secretary of a department or the head of an independent agency to have ultimate responsibility for all matters in the department or agency, the head of a statistical agency, for credibility, should be allowed full authority in professional and technical matters. For example, decisions to revise the methodology for calculating the Consumer Price Index, the gross domestic product, and the supplemental poverty measure40 have been and are properly made by the relevant statistical agency heads or their designees.41
41 For a somewhat different view, see Bradburn and Fuqua (2010), who discuss the potential dangers to statistical agency credibility in the development of indicators, defined as statistics used for assessment (e.g., the poverty rate). They argue for policy officials to establish normative aspects of indicators, such as the poverty threshold.