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IRS Statistics of Income Gets Good News

1 February 2010 2,880 views No Comment

ASA monitors other agencies’ progress on autonomy, stature, leadership

This column is written to inform ASA members about what the ASA is doing to promote the inclusion of statistics in policymaking and the funding of statistics research. To suggest science policy topics for the ASA to address, contact ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson at pierson@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor

Pierson-color copySteve Pierson earned his PhD in physics from the University of Minnesota. He spent eight years in the Physics Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later became head of government relations at the American Physical Society before joining the ASA as director of science policy.

Employees in the IRS Statistics of Income (SOI) Division, one of 14 primary federal statistical agencies, received encouraging news in mid-December via an email saying their IT resources would remain under the control of their umbrella organization: Research, Analysis, and Statistics (RAS). As readers may recall from my July 2009 column, the IRS seemed to be moving toward absorbing SOI’s IT into the much larger IRS IT infrastructure as part of a move to make their IT system more secure.

The ASA, together with members of the SOI Advisory Panel, worked hard to forestall such plans because of the ramifications for SOI’s effectiveness and efficiency and will continue to monitor the situation as details unfold.

In their email to SOI and other RAS employees, IRS Chief Technology Officer Terence V. Milholland and Acting RAS Director Patricia H. McGuire said the plan was largely to move most RAS servers to a secure facility in a separate location from other IT systems, have RAS employees continue to administer all RAS systems and applications, and keep RAS IT staff in the RAS organization.

Many details remain to be worked out, but most people familiar with the situation regard this as a positive step. Thomas Petska, ASA Fellow and retired SOI director, said, “I think that this is the best outcome we could envision, so I am cautiously optimistic, although a memorandum of understanding to document this in writing is still needed.” Other SOI Advisory Panel members concurred, adding it is important to remain vigilant as the plan is developed.

Hints of the change in IRS plans for SOI’s IT resources were in the air at the fall meeting of the SOI Advisory Panel. A representative from the IRS IT services reported there was a shift when they realized the uniqueness of SOI. More than once, I heard the metaphor of “having to break the mold” when considering SOI’s IT resources.

The challenge of IT control was also a factor in the principle “strong position of independence” being elevated this year in the National Academies’ Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency (fourth edition). The timing was excellent, as the ASA used this document in its meetings on the SOI issue. I understand the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) leadership also used Principles and Practices when discussing their IT centralization scheme with USDA IT officials.

To recap the reason why control of its IT resources is so important to a statistical agency, I quote 2009 ASA President Sally Morton from a letter she wrote to John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor:

First, for a statistical agency to keep the trust of its data providers, it must be seen as insulated from other entities. Such insulation is lost without control of IT resources. Second, to provide timely reports and respond nimbly to requests, statistical agencies must have ready, direct access to their data, which would not be the case if employees have to access their data through a centralized IT office that may have different priorities. Finally, the greatest strength of a statistical agency is its personnel, who consist of multidisciplinary project teams that work successfully hand-in-hand with years of institutional knowledge, training, and experience. Dismantling these teams would undermine the effectiveness and efficiency of a statistical agency and greatly lessen its ability to maintain sustainable human capital.

While this news is certainly important to ASA members at SOI and across the federal government, I think the issue is relevant to all members. The federal statistical agencies’ products represent perhaps the highest-profile applications of statistics, as they are widely reported and have an influence on policy and the financial markets. Therefore, it is vital for the ASA to help ensure the federal statistical agencies have the resources they need to do their jobs effectively and efficiently.

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