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White House Issues Policy Directive Bolstering Federal Statistical Agencies

1 January 2015 226 views 2 Comments
Steve Pierson, ASA Director of Science Policy

    The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) finalized in late November a new federal statistical policy directive, Fundamental Responsibilities of Federal Statistical Agencies and Recognized Statistical Units. As OMB Chief Statistician Katherine Wallman explained in the email announcing the action, “This directive affirms the fundamental responsibilities of federal statistical agencies and recognized statistical units in the design, collection, processing, editing, compilation, analysis, release, and dissemination of statistical information. … [T]he proposed directive is intended to provide a unified, concise framework for governance of official statistics.”

    The new directive was praised by leaders in the federal statistical community, especially by the smaller federal statistical agencies and units. Recent National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Jack Buckley commented, “Today, more than ever, the country is awash with data. But not all data are created equal. Those collected by a small set of key agencies are essential to an accurate understanding of virtually every important aspect of our government and economy and those agencies must never lose the trust of all Americans—regardless of party or position. This new statistical policy directive is an important step in securing the independence of our federal statistical system and safeguarding that trust.”

    Connie Citro, director of the National Academies’ Committee on National Statistics, commented, “The new OMB Statistical Policy Directive No. 1 is a heartening development for U.S. statistical agencies, their myriad data users, and the nation. Statistical agencies provide a vitally important public good—namely relevant, objective, accurate, and timely information that is available to all and that protects the confidentiality of data providers. The directive explicitly recognizes the responsibilities of statistical agencies in this regard and, correspondingly, the need for cabinet departments to facilitate the ability of statistical agencies to meet their responsibilities. The directive also means that the United States has an overarching governance document for statistical activities similar to the United Nations and the European Union.”

    Katherine Smith, former director of the Economic Research Service and current executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, stated, “Even though U.S. statistical agencies have long followed the principles and practices it outlines, the directive adds a sometimes needed extra layer of protection for statistical agencies and units against administrative procedures (like hierarchical clearance processes, IT network administration, or hiring practices) that would interfere with the timely provision of accurate and objective federal statistics. This directive exposition of the autonomy that is necessary for a statistical agency to be trusted is clearer and has more expansive coverage than that outlined in previous directives. If I were running an unrecognized statistical unit of the federal government, I would find this a very good time to apply to OMB for recognition.”

    As implied in Wallman’s statement above, the new directive combines content of previous OMB directives with additional guidance in a single, more comprehensive document. The directive lists the following four responsibilities for federal statistical agencies:

    • Produce and disseminate relevant and timely information
    • Conduct credible and accurate statistical activities
    • Conduct objective statistical activities
    • Protect the trust of information providers by ensuring the confidentiality of their responses

    While there are more than 100 federal statistical units, the new directive applies specifically to the 13 primary statistical agencies, the Federal Reserve Board’s Microeconomic Surveys Unit, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (Department of Health and Human Services), and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (Department of Agriculture) (in addition to “federal statistical agencies and statistical units newly recognized after the issuance of this directive.”)

    The May 21 Federal Register notice calling for comments on the then-proposed directive provides an overview of the importance of the federal statistical system and protecting public trust in it, as well as the numerous legislative actions and executive orders currently in place to maintain this public confidence. The notice also summarizes the key points of three documents from which the OMB drew guidance for the directive: the National Academy of Sciences’ Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency (the fourth and fifth editions of which the ASA Board endorsed), the European Statistics Code of Practice, and the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics.

    In the ASA’s comments, Executive Director Ron Wasserstein strongly supported the proposed directive. See Wasserstein’s letter and more information about the May 21 call for comments.

    Federal departments and agencies hosting a federal statistical agency or unit are required to provide a report to OMB for implementation of this directive by March 25.

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    • Jeff said:

      The ASA posting does not appear to include a link to the final policy directive. While the article’s link (‘See Wasserstein’s letter and more information about the May 21 call for comments’)does not explicitly indicate it, the final policy is now available via that ASA link.

      The ASA coverage would be more “user friendly” if it facilitated access to the referenced policy directive by including an explicit link in the coverage. As one posiblity, GPO has posted the final policy directive at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-12-02/pdf/2014-28326.pdf )

    • Steve Pierson said:

      Sorry for the omission, Jeff. Thanks for providing the direct link in your comment.