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ASA, COPAFS, Partners Urge Bolstering of Federal Statistical Agencies

1 March 2021 7,043 views No Comment
Constance Citro, Emerson Elliott, John Gawalt, Felice Levine, Jeri Mulrow, Paul Schroeder, Katherine Wallman, and Steve Pierson

Federal statistics have undergirded our democracy, society, and economy since the nation’s founding. Even as their importance has increased over the centuries—especially recently with the focus on evidence-based policymaking—the agencies producing the data have been neglected, lost important autonomy and statutory protections, and been pushed deeper into the federal bureaucracy. Several agencies have experienced threats to the integrity of key data sets (e.g., the 2020 census) and to their ability to carry out their basic functions (e.g., the abrupt relocation of USDA’s Economic Research Service [ERS] and subsequent loss of staff).

Box 1—Supporting Organizations’ Documents
The documents include the following:

  • Principal Statistical Agencies, system-wide priorities
  • Bureau of Economic Analysis
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • Bureau of Transportation Statistics
  • Economic Research Service
  • National Agricultural Statistics Service
  • National Center for Education Statistics
  • National Center for Health Statistics
  • National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
  • US Census Bureau

All this has been occurring with 21st-century opportunities and challenges needing urgent attention. An existential threat to high-quality government statistics is declining survey response rates at a time of growing demand for more timely and local data. Offsetting the threats are the promising opportunities possible through incorporation of data from administrative records and non-federal sources, as well as newly available and powerful processing tools for data linkages.

The American Statistical Association, Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics (COPAFS), and other supporters of federal statistics are recommending specific actions to address immediate issues of data integrity and the decades-long challenges that have undercut the ability of the principal statistical agencies to carry out their missions to the fullest. The goal is to ensure reliable, objective, and timely government statistics for public and policy use in the service of a strong economy, society, and democratic polity. The supporting organizations’ documents cover the federal statistical system as a whole and 10 of the principal federal statistical agencies. Box 1 provides a link to the documents; Table 1 highlights priority recommendations for the 10 agencies.

System-Wide Recommendations

For the statistical system as a whole, the ASA, COPAFS, and supporting organizations focused on challenges and opportunities that are common across agencies. They recommend the administration and Congress prioritize opportunities to build back and enhance the nation’s data infrastructure by doing the following:

    • Enhancing autonomy to ensure reliable, objective data: The 2020 Census and ERS-relocation controversies—as well as concerns raised about COVID-19 data—exposed weaknesses in ensuring objective and reliable government statistics. Several of the supporting organizations’ priorities documents recommend a bolstering of federal statistical agency autonomy—including for publications, budget, hiring, and IT infrastructure. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) documents urge a restoration of Senate confirmation of their presidentially appointed heads (removed in 2012). Senate confirmation provides an important check on the technical qualifications and integrity of the nominee and affords Congress a route to ensure the agency head’s accountability. It may also provide the confirmed head additional authority to defend the integrity of the agency’s products and thereby elevate the role of statistics in evidence-based policymaking.


    • Giving greater emphasis to “real-time” data: Federal statistical agencies have traditionally emphasized the production of annual series, such as household income and poverty statistics or crime victimization rates. The key economic indicators designated by the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are published more frequently—examples are the quarterly Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) gross domestic product (GDP) releases and the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) price index and jobs reports. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need for even more series to be produced quickly and made available as frequently as possible. Agencies have responded with agility and resolve, illustrating what can be achieved with more resources. In collaboration with five other federal statistical agencies, the Census Bureau launched the Household Pulse Survey, providing insightful weekly data starting in May about how Americans are faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the collaborating agencies, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), also began publishing near real-time data on deaths due to the pandemic. In addition, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) started providing daily and weekly statistics that serve as an early indicator of how the pandemic affects transportation demand and services. Agencies should be provided the support and resources to further the publishing of more real-time data.


  • Linking data to deepen insights on social conditions: Federal statistical agencies are working to enhance the relevance of their data by cross-linking them with data from other agencies, work supported and encouraged by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. But many opportunities have yet to be addressed. For example, the BJS—with greater investment—could link criminal justice data with education, health, transportation, and economic data to study the drivers of criminal activity and how they can be better mitigated. Similarly, BTS could work with local communities to better understand how people in the community use the transportation network to access employment, health care, education, fresh groceries, and other essential services and needs, which, in turn, could inform investment decisions for the betterment and strengthening of their communities.

To act on these priorities, the administration and Congress should address the following factors that inhibit the ability of the agencies to serve the information needs of the nation:

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    • Restore lost purchasing power: Because of budget constraints, many statistical agencies are struggling to continue established programs, let alone respond to new data needs or take advantage of methodological and technological advances that would improve their data and reduce costs and respondent burden. As seen in Table 2, all but three of 12 federal statistical agencies have lost purchasing power since FY09, while three of the agencies lost more than 12 percent in purchasing power (see Figure 1).


    • Address staff shortages: For at least three agencies, staff size constraints keep them from seizing opportunity, working at full capacity, or fulfilling their potential. The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) has a budget-to-staff ratio of $1.15 million per FTE, a ratio more than three times the median of the 12 principal federal statistical agencies. For the NCES, the ratio is $2.56, or more than 7.5 times the median (see Table 3). These high ratios mean that in-house staff cannot fully monitor the work of contractors, let alone develop important new initiatives. BTS also faces a serious shortage of FTE staff, hampering its efforts to maintain internal capacity, keep pace with statistical advancements, and innovate to leverage big data.


  • Strengthen capacity for system-wide coordination: Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of the United States’ decentralized statistical system, the supporting organizations recommend enhancing system-wide coordination and collaboration, including elevating the position of the chief statistician of the United States within OMB, providing the chief statistician more staff, and asking agencies to coordinate and integrate statistical programs across agencies.

How You Can Help

We encourage members of the ASA and other stakeholders to express their concerns about the federal statistical system as a whole, as well as specific agencies (including agencies for which documents do not yet exist), to their representatives in Congress, the ASA, COPAFS, supporting organizations, and other organizations to which they belong.

The time is ripe for action that could make a real difference in the quality, timeliness, and relevance of the nation’s statistical output about employment, economic growth, poverty, educational achievement, health and well-being, crime victimization, agricultural production, transportation, and the scientific enterprise.

Action to bolster the federal statistical enterprise can also go far to bolster the trust of all parties in the integrity of the data. Federal statistics are the backbone of the nation’s data infrastructure—they need and deserve our active attention and support.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a January 27 ASA press release, which includes quotes from several leaders of the federal statistical community.

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