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ASA Leaders Reminisce: Katherine K. Wallman

1 February 2016 No Comment
Jim Cochran
    In the fourteenth installment of the Amstat News series of interviews with ASA presidents and executive directors, we feature a discussion with 1992 ASA President Katherine K. Wallman.
    Katherine K. Wallman

    Katherine K. Wallman

    Katherine K. Wallman serves as chief statistician at the United States Office of Management and Budget. She provides policy oversight, establishes priorities, advances long-term improvements, and sets standards for a federal statistical establishment that comprises more than 100 agencies spread across every cabinet department.

    Wallman represents the U.S. government in international statistical organizations, including the United Nations and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. During her tenure, Wallman has increased collaboration among the agencies of the U.S. statistical system, fostered improvements in the scope and quality of the nation’s official statistics, strengthened protections for confidential statistical information, and initiated changes that have made the products of the system more accessible and usable.

    Prior to 1992, Wallman served for more than a decade as executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics. She also worked in the Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards and the National Center for Education Statistics.

    Wallman—twice honored as a Presidential Meritorious Executive—is an elected member of the International Statistical Institute, a fellow of both the American Statistical Association and American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a founder member of the International Association for Official Statistics. In 1992, she served as ASA president, and, in 2007, she was honored with the association’s Founders Award.

    Wallman has been honored with the Robert G. Damus Award for significant, sustained contributions to the integrity and excellence of OMB (2009) and the Population Association of America’s Excellence in Public Service Award (2011). At the international level, Wallman served as chair of the UN Statistical Commission during 2004 and 2005; as chair of the Conference of European Statisticians, UN Economic Commission for Europe, from 2003 to 2007; and as a vice chair of the Statistics Committee, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development from 2009 to 2011.

    Q: You have served both as chair of the United Nations Statistical Commission and chair of the Conference of European Statisticians for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. In these roles, how did you and other members of this commission interact with the other four regional commissions of the United Nations Economic and Social Council—the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), and the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA)? What steps were taken to advance the application of statistics to encourage economic growth and improvement of the quality of life in the nations represented by the ECA, ESCAP, ECLAC, and ESCWA? What have been the ramifications of these actions?

    A: Working with colleagues in the international community has been one of the more unique and most rewarding opportunities of serving as U.S. chief statistician. A little-known fact is that the United Nations Statistical Commission was one of the original bodies of the UN at its founding. Another little-known fact, I’m sure, is that the first U.S. chief statistician, Stuart Rice, chaired the nuclear session of the UN Statistical Commission in 1946. When I first attended the commission in 1993, the then-chair referred to me as the lady statistician—a distinction that has disappeared as more women have become chief statisticians in their respective countries…

    The UN Statistical Commission brings together the chief statisticians from member states from around the world. It is the highest decision-making body for international statistical activities, especially the setting of statistical standards and the development of concepts and methods and their implementation at the national and international levels. The UN Statistical Commission is responsible, among other things, for the following:

    • Promoting the development of national statistics and the improvement of their comparability, including concerted technical cooperation efforts to assist the developing countries in strengthening their statistical systems
    • Coordinating statistical activities and methodological development to achieve an integrated system in the collection, processing, and dissemination of international statistics
    • Advising the organs of the United Nations on general questions relating to the collection, analysis, and dissemination of statistical information

    I must admit that when I first attended the commission in 1993—literally some six weeks after taking on the U.S. chief statistician role—I was struck by the fact that the commission felt like it was two separate events. One event for the developed economies, whose chief statisticians were more focused on creating more complex methods such as for national accounting, and the other for the developing economies, who were most focused on building core statistical capabilities in their respective nations. But through the commission itself, and particularly through the regional commissions, these gaps were substantially bridged.

    The most fundamental interaction between the commission, the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), and the other four regional commissions was and continues to be through technical cooperation missions, providing experts to assist in building statistical capacity at the country level. Less well known, I imagine, is the example that the ECE provided for other regional commissions striving to strengthen their effectiveness. Particularly strong have been the collaborations of statisticians in the ECE with those in ECLAC and ESCAP. Through their shared culture as statisticians, they have been quite successful in bringing the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics to the establishment and improvement of statistical services in many countries.

    Q: In serving as chief statistician of the United States since 1992, you have been responsible for coordinating, guiding, and overseeing the federal statistical system of the United States for almost a quarter century. How has the role the chief statistician and the Office of Management and Budget play in the federal statistical system evolved since you first became chief statistician?

    A: When I became chief statistician in December 1992, the role of the office had already undergone a major evolution—in particular, whereas the office back in the day had comprised a substantially larger cadre of statisticians, there was but a handful of professionals by the time I took over. The principal difference was that the experts responsible for our portfolio of statistical classifications—notably occupational and industry classification systems, as well as those for metropolitan statistical areas, data on race and ethnicity, and others—were no longer on the staff at OMB. During the last 25 years, OMB has called upon agency experts to carry out much of the developmental work related to statistical methods and standards, including the classifications. In addition, whereas the Statistical Policy Office historically had performed the information collection review function for all federally sponsored inquiries, this responsibility has been decentralized to other OMB staff.

    We remain, as always, centrally involved in the development of the president’s budget for statistical programs and in the review and approval of all statistical surveys promulgated by federal government agencies. The biggest change, I would argue, is that these changes have allowed the chief statistician and OMB to shift from a transaction-oriented focus to one that allows more attention to longer-term priorities. For example, in the last several years, we have invested in issuing principles for statistical agencies, information quality standards, updated methodological standards, data dissemination standards, statistical confidentiality and statistical data sharing guidance, and administrative record use guidance.

    Q: The federal statistical system of the United States is comprised of 13 principal statistical agencies. In this manner, the United States differs from countries such as Sweden, Canada, South Africa, and Australia that maintain primary statistical agencies. What are the advantages to the U.S. approach to its federal statistics system? During your term, what has been the most substantial change in the way agencies collaborate in the decentralized U.S. statistical system? What is the major impediment to interagency cooperation and collaborations that we still face?

    A: You will not be surprised to learn that this is a question I have been asked more than once—including by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands! The primary, oft-cited advantage is that the statistical offices in our country are more closely attuned to the issues and challenges in their respective domains—be they in health, education, criminal justice, transportation, etc. What may be less well understood is that centralization is really a continuum, not an either/or arrangement. As a result, in many centralized systems, the statistical agency is not actually in charge of statistics in various ministries responsible for health, education, criminal justice, transportation, etc. Not infrequently, the principles, policies, standards—and the resources to support the statistical programs—are not applicable to these ministries or are not enforceable by the central statistical office.

    With respect to interagency collaboration over the past 25 years, I would offer that it has increased substantially as agencies face more common challenges. These have ranged from meeting common resource constraints to embracing new technologies to addressing declining response rates to facing cyber-security realities to updating concepts that underlie the collection of data and the production of economic and demographic statistics. In each of these cases and more, the agencies have welcomed the opportunity to learn from one another and join together to explore options and develop solutions.

    In my experience, the major impediment to further collaboration continues to be the language of different agencies’ authorizing statutes—or in the interpretation of those statutes—which make seemingly reasonable approaches to data sharing or cost sharing difficult, if not impossible.

    Q: In his 2011 proposal to reorganize the U.S. Department of Commerce, President Obama recommended consolidation of several federal statistical agencies. What specific changes to the federal statistical system did President Obama propose, and how would these changes foster increased interagency cooperation and collaboration?

    A: The proposal you reference appeared in the president’s FY 2013 budget as part of an initiative to consolidate the government’s core trade and competitiveness functions into a new department with a focused mission to foster economic growth and spur job creation. Statistical agency consolidation was one of a number of proposals under this initiative that would have been considered if the Congress had granted authority to the president to carry out such reorganizations on an expedited basis. That authority was not granted.

    Under the proposal, the four statistical agencies that would have been considered for consolidation were the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NSF).

    The theory was that—over the longer term—this consolidation might result in some cost-efficiencies, as well as in better sharing, particularly of business establishment data, a continuing challenge under current organizational arrangements (in particular because business tax data are co-mingled with census economic data). Suffice it to say that even if the reorganization authority had been granted by the Congress, there would have been further hurdles to jump to achieve the potential centralization.

    Q: Twenty-one years ago, seven federal agencies, including the United States Office of Management and Budget, jointly created the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. What activities does this forum undertake to achieve its goals of collecting enhanced data on children and youth, improving the communication of information on the status of children to the policy community and the general public, and producing more complete data on children at the federal, state, and local levels?

    A: As noted earlier in this interview, there has been considerable growth in interagency collaborations over the past two decades. The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics is an excellent example. Founded by seven agencies, the forum now counts more than 20 agencies as members.

    The impetus for the forum was that despite having many agencies collect data on various aspects of children’s lives—such as health and safety, education and employment, and housing and nutrition—there was no National Center for Child Statistics, and therefore no portrait of children cutting across their experiences. The forum’s first—and now longstanding—accomplishment was to produce such a portrait in an annual report, incorporating a number of indicators across domains. Production of that report, America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, highlighted key measures for children and their families. The report continues to serve as a reliable resource for the policy community and general public, providing accurate data on timely and relevant topics. To enhance communication with its stakeholders, the forum has continued a practice of inviting academic researchers, policymakers, and other friends of the forum to its annual meetings, providing opportunity for sharing pertinent survey findings and updates on new and innovative research methods.

    The America’s children report also underscores several data challenges, a number of which have been taken on by the forum. For example, through the forum, the agencies have worked to use more comparable age-breaks, racial/ethnic breakouts, and the like in collecting and publishing their data. Notably, the forum’s work has served to identify critical gaps in data on children, such as children of incarcerated parents, early childhood development—particularly within the domain of social/emotional development—long-term poverty, disability, and social connections and engagement. A repository of national-level data, the forum responds to key data interests and data needs, such as the recent administration initiative My Brother’s Keeper. Forum agencies also independently produce state- and local-level data that can be accessed through the forum’s website, childstats.gov.

    Q: What was the most interesting issue you faced during your term as president of the ASA? How did you resolve this issue?

    A: If you’ll allow me, I’d like to mention two quite different issues we confronted. The more divisive was the matter of the ASA and accreditation of statisticians. I’d like to say there were two distinct camps, but I’m not sure that would be an accurate portrayal. On the one hand, there were academic statisticians, who seemed to feel for the most part that their advanced degrees and faculty positions should speak for themselves. On the other hand, there were consulting statisticians, who seemed most eager to have a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to add to their credentials. There, the seeming clarity of positions ended. Government statisticians, as I recall, were divided—some for, some against. And then there was an overlay of those who—regardless of their chosen sector—thought that the American Society for Quality Control or some other organization would put the ASA out of business if we didn’t take this role. The solution, as I recall, was to have a pilot program in which a few of our members would submit their credentials for review, and then offer a totally voluntary portfolio-based accreditation opportunity.

    More fun, from my perspective, was engaging the arguably learned society ASA in my hopes for an initiative to enhance children’s statistical literacy. Aside from Fred Mosteller’s fair challenge—So what about those over 30 and in need?—I am pleased to say the ASA took this on in ensuing years. My big gamble was having our ASA Quantitative Literacy colleagues, led by Jim Landwehr, be my president’s invited address feature. I shall always remember that ballroom full of learned statisticians counting—and prohibited from eating—their M&Ms! More lasting, in my view, are the Census at School, Meeting within a Meeting, and other ongoing pre-college initiatives of our association.

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