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ASA, GMU Team on Project to Assess Health of Federal Statistical Agencies

1 April 2023 484 views No Comment
Jonathan Auerbach, Claire McKay Bowen, Constance Citro, Steve Pierson, and Nancy Potok

    Federal statistics support our democracy in crucial and often overlooked ways. They ensure the fair allocation of political representation and government funding; support public and private programs in agriculture, science, health, education, criminal justice, and other areas; advance research that drives innovation and guides policymaking; and improve public understanding of social and economic trends. But the federal agencies that produce statistical data face a growing number of threats.

    Events like those surrounding the 2020 Census reveal the integrity of key data sets is at risk. So is the ability of statistical agencies to control basic administrative decisions (e.g., the abrupt relocation of USDA’s Economic Research Service and subsequent loss of staff). Yet due to the political nature of these events, reactions are easily dismissed as partisan. A proactive approach is necessary to address the vulnerabilities of our statistical infrastructure before they become politicized.

    Recently, a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded a collaboration between the American Statistical Association and George Mason University to assess the health of the federal statistical agencies.

    A team made up of ASA members Jonathan Auerbach, Claire Bowen, Constance Citro, Steve Pierson, and Nancy Potok will begin reporting their assessment on the health of the federal statistical agencies in the first quarter of 2024, with updates annually thereafter.

    The work will build on the many guidelines the statistics community has established to protect federal statistical systems. These guidelines include the US Office of Management and Budget Statistical Policy Directives, the National Academies Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency, and the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics.

    The assessment will measure the extent to which these guidelines are met in practice, and thereby evaluate the health of the federal statistical system. The goal is to devise a set of simple and transparent indicators, or “vital signs.” Candidate indicators include measures of the following:

    • Resources (e.g., budget levels, staffing, contracting, unfunded mandates)
    • Professional autonomy (see preliminary work)
    • Innovation/modernization capabilities (e.g., new products, pilot projects, staff exchanges with other agencies and academia, timeliness of data releases)
    • Workforce (e.g., employee satisfaction, professional development, recruitment and retention, diversity)
    • Host agency support for statistical agency (e.g., layers between statistical and host agency heads, initiatives in president’s budget request)
    • Data use and user engagement (e.g., transparency, dedicated advisory committee, customer satisfaction, data access modes and their timeliness and usability)

    The team will rely primarily on publicly available information, supplemented by information provided by the statistical agencies from structured inquiries. They will identify data sources, consult widely with the agencies and others about suitable metrics, develop a first suite of metrics, review them in a public workshop in the fall, and publish the first annual report on the health of federal statistics in early 2024.

    Send any comments or suggestions to ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson. Students who wish to get involved should also reach out to Pierson.

    Follow the team’s progress on the ASA website.

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