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Meet BLS Commissioner Keith Hall

1 October 2011 2,318 views No Comment
Amstat News invited Keith Hall, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), to respond to the following questions so readers could learn more about him and the agency he leads. Look for other statistical agency head interviews in past and forthcoming issues.

Keith HallKeith Hall has more than 20 years of federal service with the Department of the Treasury, International Trade Commission, Department of Commerce, Executive Office of the President, and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    What have you enjoyed most about being head of BLS?

    As I come to the end of my first term as commissioner of BLS, I want to thank the ASA for providing me the opportunity to express my deep appreciation to the employees of BLS, my colleagues in the statistical community, members of Congress, and the many others who have given me their support in serving the American people. It has been a great honor to lead an agency of dedicated professionals whose work helps make BLS a recognized world leader in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of critical measures of employment and unemployment, compensation and benefits, workplace safety, productivity, and consumer and producer prices.

    One of the highlights of my tenure was celebrating the 125th anniversary of BLS and presiding over the ceremonies recognizing its historic role in providing information that affects nearly all aspects of American society. I have also enjoyed working to design and implement initiatives to ensure that BLS has the resources and talent needed to meet the information needs of a rapidly changing U.S. and global economy by continuously improving our products and services, investing in our work force, and modernizing our business process.

    What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) for BLS, and have they changed significantly since you started this position?

    Perhaps our biggest challenge has been to maintain the quality and usefulness of BLS data in the face of significant budget pressures and an increasingly more difficult data collection environment. We managed to work through some budget challenges from FY 2007 to mid-year FY 2009 and, while we’ve saved tens of millions of dollars a year and slowed the decline of survey response rates with innovations such as our Internet Data Collection Facility and the development of an alternate to the Locality Pay Survey, I am concerned about the likelihood of much deeper budget cuts in the near future. These would almost certainly result in the loss of whole statistical programs for BLS. Improving data collection technology will continue to help over time, but such innovation takes time and resources, especially in a federal government setting.

    Describe your top two or three priorities for BLS.

    One of my top priorities has been improving our data analysis and dissemination. Although producing reliable and accurate data is absolutely necessary for BLS, it is not enough to focus our analysis and dissemination roles solely on the needs of policymakers in Washington. Our data have tremendous value as part of the “statistical infrastructure” of the U.S. economy and the potential to help nearly every American make better-informed decisions—both public and private. This is becoming all the more important as we continue to see the decline in the number of responsible, knowledgeable business writers and the rise of nontraditional news sources on the Internet. I worry that this is becoming an age of “too much information” and it is becoming quite difficult for an average American to distinguish objective, reliable economic information.

    Another of my priorities has been supporting the modernization of our pricing programs, beginning with the Consumer Price Index (CPI). For the first time, we are now continuously updating the components of the CPI, rather than updating once a decade with each new decennial census. Also, we are now well into the process of completely redesigning the Consumer Expenditure Survey, which is used to select the market basket of goods used in the CPI.

    Fast Facts
    BLS Commissioner reports to Secretary of Labor’s Office
    Website: www.bls.gov
    FY11 budget: $610 million
    Staff size: 2,600

    What do you see as the role for the broader statistical community in supporting BLS?

    As I mentioned before, I believe that BLS data and the data from other federal statistical agencies are part of an important “statistical infrastructure” for the U.S. economy. Viewing the federal statistical system as a whole, the broader statistical community can help in many ways. This would include helping to identify and support efforts to address weaknesses and inconsistencies in methodologies and gaps in data coverage, find more cost-effective ways to collect data, communicate the value and quality of our statistical products to a wider audience of both potential data users and potential employees, and maintain the continued transparency and independence—real and perceived—that is essential to the successful accomplishment of the BLS mission and the mission of the other statistical agencies.

    What do you see as the biggest accomplishment of the agency during your tenure?

    I believe that BLS has significantly improved access to our data and is providing more accessible analysis for average Americans. We have developed a detailed strategic plan with specific outreach goals. We’ve redesigned our website and now get as many as 4 million unique visitors per month. We’ve redesigned our data releases and are moving them toward an interactive online format. We’re now using a customer information system to track phone calls and emails to inform us of what kind of questions we’re getting from users. And, last year, we spent significant time and resources developing a detailed and ambitious plan for using social media. Although this project has now stalled because of an impasse with the Department of Labor, I’m hopeful that we will be able to resume our plans soon.

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