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Meet Joseph Reilly, Administrator of NASS

1 November 2014 269 views No Comment

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Prior to his tenure at the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Joseph T. Reilly was at the U.S. Census Bureau for more than 21 years. While there in 1997, he received the department’s highest award for his outstanding management of the Census of Agriculture program. He is a 1975 graduate of The Pennsylvania State University with degrees in statistics and marketing. Amstat News invited Reilly 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.

    What about this position appealed to you?

    Having worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) since 1997 in various leadership roles, I have developed a true passion for the agency, our staff, and the service we provide. As the source of official U.S. agricultural production statistics and a part of the federal statistical system, we provide high-quality, objective data as a public service to everyone interested in agriculture, while always keeping the identity of farmers and ranchers who provide their information confidential.

    At the same time, we are unique because many of our employees come from farms and we work directly with America’s farmers, ranchers, and producers, which keeps us well grounded. It is a huge and exciting responsibility, and I think everyone at NASS is proud to be in service to U.S. agriculture.

    It is also an exciting time of change for the agency and for U.S. agriculture. It is incumbent upon us to keep up to date with best statistical practices, trends in agriculture, and the needs of data users within budget and regulatory frameworks provided to us. To those ends, former Administrator Cynthia Clark and I, as associate administrator, began a reorganization in 2012 that is transforming the way we do our statistical work. When complete, we will be much more efficient and flexible in meeting the needs of a wide variety of program delivery. For example, we are starting to collect data or to expand existing programs on bees, conservation practices, urban agriculture and current agricultural industrial reports to keep up with changing policy and information needs. In a practical sense, this means providing the leadership that gives NASS staff the tools and working environment they need to do their jobs. At the same time, it means being as proactive as possible in anticipating needs of the people who use the data to serve agriculture, whether they be agribusiness, land grant universities, Congress, USDA agencies, or producers themselves.

    Taking on the responsibilities of administrator of this great agency and working with such talented staff to modernize the work we do in service to America’s agriculture sector holds great appeal to me and is an honor.

    Describe the top 2–3 priorities you have for the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

    Our top internal priority is to complete our reorganization. In our new regionalized structure, we are using more centralized and standardized processes that will make us more systematic and efficient in our work. We are still in transition, so our entire leadership team is evaluating where we are in the process and prioritizing our next steps. Also, from an internal perspective, I mentioned the need to focus on the needs of our staff—not only providing the tools they need, but also the working environment that is conducive to them. This involves a different type of transformation. Newer efforts include more telework and flexible work arrangements, enhanced career path and advancement opportunities, and more.

    Externally, we always have an eye to the needs of those who provide data by responding to our surveys and those who use our data. In the big picture, we are working on modernizing and streamlining how respondents provide information so it is easier for them and the resulting statistics are more complete and accurate. In particular, we are focusing on various forms of electronic data response, from using tablets to collect data in the field to simplifying our online response mechanism, and looking at the use of previously reported data and administrative information to reduce the burden on respondents. On the data user’s side, we want to make our data as accessible as possible. To that end, we’ve recently added a simplified query tool as part of our Quick Stats database and are providing some documents that summarize large amounts of data, such as the recent Census of Agriculture results, into smaller topical publications. We’d like to hear more about how we can make the agricultural statistics we produce even more useful.

    What do you see as your biggest challenge for NASS?

    I think there are a number of challenges we face. Each has the potential to be the most important at any given time. One is the uncertain budget process in recent years. As an organization that produces statistics based on a calendar driven by sometimes-long data-collection lead times and crop-growing cycles, we have difficulty conducting surveys and producing the public data that U.S. agriculture and other data users expect when we don’t get a budget on time.

    Another challenge is the decreasing understanding of the importance of responding to surveys among our potential respondents. We have a great opportunity to raise this awareness by showing the value of the data and how it is and can be used to their benefit, as well as dispelling misinformation about negative uses of data. Declining response rates is a problem across the statistical community and something we as a field are exploring.

    What kind of support from the statistical community do you look for?

    Overall, I think we have really strong networks and a professional community to advance our field. If I were to point to one area, it would probably be to see more emphasis placed on applied statistics in colleges. For example, in the case of agricultural statistics, there aren’t as many students with farm backgrounds coming into statistical programs so necessary subject matter expertise is lacking in statistics majors and graduates. The same may be said for labor, energy, or other fields. And there seem to be fewer opportunities to learn this subject matter in an office setting.

    Prior to your tenure as administrator, what do you see as the biggest recent accomplishment of the agency?

    This is an easy one. We just spent five years working on the 2012 Census of Agriculture, which is one of our largest data-collection and publication efforts. I commend NASS staff for handling this major undertaking while also tackling restructuring, pushing forward our standardization efforts, and continuing to produce more than 400 of our regularly scheduled surveys and reports. It is a tremendous success story for our agency that we can build on going forward.

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