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You Can Count on Us

1 June 2018 No Comment

Lisa LaVange

A new term entered our national vernacular last year: “alternative facts.” Although its use has provided new material for the comic stage and late-night talk shows, it has caused consternation among scientists.

JSM 2017 featured no fewer than five sessions about government statistics, including one titled “Doomed Data … When National Governments, Coerced Narratives, and Alternative Facts Override the Quality, Importance of Statistics.” And earlier this year, the AAAS annual meeting featured a brainstorming session about ways to deal with or push back against alternative facts shown to be false.

Even before alternative facts became a reality (pun intended), ASA Board members had an interest in determining our membership’s views on official statistics and whether public confidence in them had been affected by public dialogue. We engaged Stanton Communications to conduct focus group interviews to this effect, and out of this initial data gathering grew an exciting ASA initiative: Count on Statistics.

In early May, I had the opportunity to interview Megan Berry from Stanton Communications about the initiative. Here is what she had to say:

Why did the ASA decide such a project was needed?

Berry: Amid rising concerns about public confidence in US government statistics, the American Statistical Association commissioned Stanton Communications to conduct a study to determine the feasibility of a public outreach initiative to enhance awareness of the importance, reliability, and trustworthiness of government statistics.

We conducted more than a dozen interviews with key ASA leaders, members, and subject-matter experts with a perspective on this topic. One such interviewee stated, “We do not need to determine if there is a problem. There is a problem. The public doesn’t trust government statistics or understand where the data are coming from.”

Through these candid conversations, Stanton determined the opportunities, challenges, and objectives a strategic communications program may involve. Clearly, there was a need for a program with the mission to “distinguish federal statistics as absolutely essential to the functions of our democracy.” With the support of ASA leadership and the board, we created Count on Stats to do just that.

What approach has the campaign taken and why?

Berry: The campaign has focused on communicating the benefits of the federal statistical system—how we, as a society, “Count on Stats.” To promote this message, we work to influence the influencers, engage the user base, and amplify agency and partner communications through a variety of channels. We have engaged our key audiences—our allies, the press, members of Congress, the business community, and statistical agencies—through social media, op-eds, blogs, media interviews, press releases and statements, monthly e-newsletters, and even articles in Amstat News.

What has been accomplished thus far?

Berry: Our early efforts have focused on developing a social following, primarily on Twitter, responding to threats to the system, and building relationships with key members of the media. We have garnered direct mentions in CQ Magazine, Associations Now, and City Lab. ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein was also featured on the Consortium of Social Science Association’s Why Social Science series, expressing how statistical agencies produce data essential for democracy. Last week, Count on Stats also sponsored a panel at SABEW18 on accessing accurate government statistics and concerns about disappearing data.

What is planned for the future?

Berry: In the coming months, we will be doing more to reach out to members of the media and policymakers. This will help us proactively influence the conversation and gain a further reach. We also plan to continue emphasizing the importance of the federal statistical system by featuring a statistical agency on Twitter every week. In addition, the Count on Stats team is working to develop and host a panel featuring speakers from Congress, the press, and the federal statistical community. With this integrative approach, we hope to better educate our audiences and rebuild the public’s trust in federal statistics.

Learn more about the Count on Stats initiative. Also, search for it on Twitter using @CountonStats.

Whether encouraging and training statisticians to fulfill their leadership potential or making sure official statistics are understood and valued, just remember—you can count on the ASA!

Meet Erica Groshen

Former BLS Commissioner and Leadership Institute Steering Committee Member

A former director of the second-largest federal statistical agency, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), is the final member of the ASA Leadership Institute’s Steering Committee to be in the President’s Corner spotlight. We are privileged to have Erica Groshen, BLS commissioner from 2013–2017, advising the institute on the development of strong statistical leaders. Erica is currently a visiting senior scholar at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR). Prior to leading the BLS, she worked in the Federal Reserve System. Throughout her career, she has maintained a focus on research, development, and outreach. As a labor economist, Erica’s research taps into employer data to better understand the role of employers in the labor market and to gain insight into wage differences, rigidity, and the impact of recessions.

Regarding statistical leadership, Erica contributed one of my favorite quotes to date from the Institute’s Steering Committee. When discussing the importance of leadership training for statisticians during our first meeting, she noted that, “People rise to leadership positions from different career paths, and CEOs were something else before becoming CEOs.” Traditionally, she noted, these roles went to those trained in business or law, but with the increasing importance of data and analytics in all employment sectors, it is perhaps inevitable that statisticians should be tapped for these top posts and should not feel limited in pursuing them.

Regarding the Count on Statistics initiative, Erica commented that federal statistics are very much a public service and represent the baseline for methodological work seeking to improve the way data from surveys and other sources are used today. Thoughtful critiques of official statistics are valuable. Data sources and methods are evolving, and it is important that users understand the limitations of their use. But this is not the same as uninformed critiques, attacking without that understanding. Statisticians should be defending official statistics on a regular basis in their social and professional environments. Otherwise, we are missing an opportunity to defend our own work.

About the Leadership Institute, Erica noted that, “There is a role for professional associations like the ASA to help their members advance in their careers.”

We are fortunate to have Erica and the other steering committee members guiding the planning and operation of the institute and look forward to their continued commitment.

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