THE FIRST PRINCIPLE in the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics (United Nations Statistical Commission, 2014) accords world-wide recognition to the indispensable role of official statistics:
Official statistics provide an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society, serving the Government, the economy and the public with data about the economic, demographic, social and environmental situation. To this end, official statistics that meet the test of practical utility are to be compiled and made available on an impartial basis by official statistical agencies to honour citizens’ entitlement to public information.
In the United States, federal statistical agencies are established to be a credible source of relevant, accurate, and timely statistics in one or more subject areas that are available to the public and policy makers.
Relevant statistics are statistics that measure things that matter to policy and decision making, program implementation, program monitoring, program evaluation, scientific research, and public understanding. Relevance requires agencies to be concerned about providing data that help users meet their current needs for decision making and analysis, as well as anticipating future needs.
Accurate statistics are statistics that capture the phenomena being measured and do so in repeated measurements. Accuracy requires proper concern for consistency across geographic areas and across time, as well as for statistical measures of errors in the data.
Timely statistics are those that are made available close in time to the phenomena they measure. Timeliness also requires concern for issuing data
as frequently—but not more frequently—as is needed to reﬂect important changes in what is being studied.
Credibility requires concern for both the reality and appearance of impartiality and independence from political and other undue external inﬂuence. Credibility also requires that agencies follow such practices as making their data and the information that users need to work with the data readily available in easily accessible formats to all.
It is the primary mission of agencies in the federal statistical system to strive to ensure the relevance, accuracy, timeliness, and credibility of statistical information. Statistical Policy Directive No. 1 (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2014) underlines the importance of this mission; it categorically states that “Federal departments must [emphasis added] enable, support, and facilitate Federal statistical agencies and recognized statistical units as they implement these responsibilities.”
There is no set rule or guideline for when it is appropriate to establish a separate federal statistical agency or to add responsibility for statistics on a new topic to an existing statistical agency.14 It may be reasonable to carry on statistical activities within an operating unit of a department or independent agency instead. Establishing a federal statistical agency, or adding responsibilities to an existing agency, should be considered when one or more of the following conditions prevail.15
- There is a need for high-quality information on an ongoing basis beyond the capacity of existing operating units. Such needs may require coordinating data from various sources, initiating new data collection programs, or developing regularly updated time series of estimates.
- There is a need, as a matter of credibility, to ensure that major data series are independent of policy makers’ control and readily available on an equal basis to all users.
- There is a need to establish the functional separation of data on individuals and organizations that are collected for statistical purposes from data on individuals and organizations that may be used for administrative, regulatory, or law enforcement uses. Such separation, recommended by the Privacy Protection Study Commission (1977), bolsters a culture and practice of respect for privacy and protection of confidentiality. Functional separation is easier to maintain when the data to be used for statistical purposes
14 Legislation is usually required to establish a federal agency.
15National Research Council (2001:Ch. 6) cited such reasons in recommending that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services establish or identify a statistical agency with responsibility for statistical functions and data collection for social welfare programs and the populations they serve (the recommendation was not adopted).
are compiled and controlled by a unit that is separate from operating units or department-wide data centers.
- There is a need to emphasize the principles and practices of an effective statistical agency, for example, professional practice, openness about the data provided, and wide dissemination of data.
- There is a need to encourage research and development of a broad range of statistics in a particular area of public interest or of government activity or responsibility.
- There is a need to consolidate compilation, analysis, and dissemination of statistics in one unit to encourage high-quality performance, eliminate duplication, and streamline operations.
Commercial, nonprofit, and academic organizations in the private sector also provide useful statistical information, including data they collect themselves and data they acquire from statistical agencies and other data collectors to which they add information or analysis. However, because the benefits of statistical information are shared widely throughout society and because it is often difficult to garner payments for these benefits, private entities are not likely to collect all of the data that are needed for public and private decision making or to make data as widely available as needed for important public purposes.16
Federal statistical agencies are established to ensure that a broad array of credible, scientifically based information is available that will inform the electorate and policy makers in a democratic system of government. Federal statistics serve and “should be viewed and treated as part of the nation’s scientific infrastructure” (Prewitt, 2010:7).
16 See “Valuing Federal Statistics,” below.