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In Memoriam: 1992 ASA President Katherine Wallman

1 March 2024 500 views No Comment
Smile, gray short hair, white blouse.

Katherine Wallman

The ASA lost a great friend and leader January 17 when Katherine Wallman passed away. Her positions as chief statistician of the United States from 1992 to 2017 and 1992 ASA president only begin to capture her legacy as a leader, friend, and champion of government statistics and statistical literacy.

To provide Amstat News readers a view into this remarkable statistician’s legacy, her friends and colleagues write about some of her many accomplishments.

Constance Citro

Senior Scholar, Committee on National Statistics
Katherine Wallman, as chief statistician, played a vital role in providing the nation with a better measure of poverty.

The US poverty measure was out of date almost as soon as it was officially adopted in 1969. Following a congressionally mandated 1995 Committee on National Statistics report, Measuring Poverty: A New Approach, Katherine worked tirelessly to give the report’s recommendations a hearing.

She arranged funding for the US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics to “kick the tires” and experiment with implementing key recommendations such as adjusting the poverty line for geographic differences in housing costs. But no one could muster the political will to adopt a particular revised measure.

Finally, in 2009, Katherine co-led an interagency group that developed guidance for the Census Bureau and BLS to develop a supplemental poverty measure. At the time, Katherine was in rehab following a stroke but continued to lead the group’s deliberations, making full use of her extraordinary skill of bringing people together.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw her work vindicated—the media featured the supplemental poverty measure, which showed how expanded tax credits (not counted by the official measure) dramatically reduced child poverty.

James J. Cochran

Professor of Applied Statistics and the Mike and Kathy Mouron Chair, University of Alabama
In addition to being a stalwart public servant as the chief statistician of the United States for 25 years, Katherine was an enthusiastic supporter of efforts to increase statistical capacity and the public’s understanding of statistics throughout the world. She spoke often about the importance of statistics education and outreach, not only to improve the public’s understanding of statistics but to also improve critical thinking skills so society would not be susceptible to manipulation by dishonest leaders.

During her term as president of the ASA in 1992, Katherine was extremely supportive of the Section on Statistics Education and its efforts to establish the ASA’s Journal of Statistics Education. She presciently appreciated the ASA’s critical role in promoting effective statistics education and the important role the journal (now Journal of Statistics and Data Science Education) would play.

Katherine was also enthusiastic about the establishment of Statistics Without Borders in 2009, again foreseeing the role the new organization would play in establishing relationships among statistics communities across cultures and building important statistics capacity in countries with limited resources.

Finally, it seemed every time I saw Katherine at the Joint Statistical Meetings, she was surrounded by young (and not so young) statisticians who were employed by the US federal government. She always listened to what they had to say, offered wise council when appropriate, and often sprinkled the conversation with her unique brand of humor.

Katherine Wallman, blonde hair, bright scarf, all women are close together and have their arms around each other Margaret Martin, glasses, Mary Grace, white turtle neck sweater, Kovar, and Virginia DeWolf short hair, big smiles

Katherine meets up with friends at the 2002 Joint Statistical Meetings in New York City. From left: Katherine Wallman, Margaret Martin, Mary Grace Kovar, and Virginia DeWolf

    Brian Harris-Kojetin

    Senior Scholar, Committee on National Statistics
    Katherine Wallman said in her 1992 ASA president’s address that a fundamental challenge for the national statistical system was protecting the confidentiality of data and providing greater access to those data for statistical purposes. One of her signature accomplishments as chief statistician was achieving strong statutory protection for the confidentiality of statistical data through the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act of 2002, which was later recodified and expanded in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018. Many readers may not realize that prior to the 2002 act, there was an uneven patchwork of confidentiality protections, even across the principal statistical agencies.

    Over a period of decades, there were multiple commissions and National Academies studies that recommended strong legal protections for the confidentiality of statistical information and some limited sharing of data for statistical purposes. Katherine effectively worked within and across multiple administrations and with champions on the Hill over many years to finally get some of these key provisions enacted into law.

    Katherine often referred to our community as the “federal statistical family.” To me, she was the matriarch of this extended family for many years. I sat one office away from her at the Office of Management and Budget for 14 years, and I was incredibly fortunate to work with and learn so much from her.

    Watching Katherine in action was a master class in dealing with all kinds of people while demonstrating personal and professional integrity. Her courtesy and open manner of sharing information—involving stakeholders, genuinely listening to people, and developing consensus among parties with differing viewpoints—was amazing to witness.

    Katherine’s counsel was widely sought after, and she always made time to talk to summer interns as well as agency heads, whether it was about work or a personal issue. People didn’t always like what she had to tell them, but they truly respected her fairness and openness.

    She had great respect and trust in staff, and she was always quick to acknowledge staff at the Office of Management and Budget and the statistical agencies and make sure they got recognition for their work. She was an incredible mentor and dear friend to me and many, many others. She is greatly missed.

    Black and white scan, all smiling, Barabba and Norwood wearing glasses.

    Katherine with Vince Barabba and Janet Norwood at the 1989 closing banquet during the sesquicentennial celebration at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Washington, DC

      Hermann Habermann

      Associate Consultant, Oxford Policy Management
      Soon after I was appointed chief statistician in 1987, it was clear I needed to meet Katherine. I discovered she had been operating as the unofficial chief statistician while she was head of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics. Katherine was the person you approached to find out what was going on in the federal statistical system, and she seemed to know everyone. It was the beginning of a friendship—at the professional and personal levels—which lasted almost 37 years.

      In 1992, I was asked to find my replacement. The decision was not difficult; it was clear to me the most suitable candidate was Katherine.

      The chief statistician at the Office of Management and Budget occupies a singular position. This person must explain to the political leadership the importance of unbiased statistics. At this important and difficult task, Katherine excelled. She demonstrated a unique ability to move between the career and political spheres.

      The federal statistical system is comprised of agencies that are often jealous of their prerogatives. She recognized leadership of a decentralized system is best accomplished through building relationships. Katherine fostered a federal system in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and recognized leadership is often best demonstrated by allowing others to take center stage. She had a superior understanding of how to navigate policy differences between agencies and how to build coalitions.
      Katherine also had the skill of being able to disagree without being disagreeable and knowing how to leverage the scarce resources of her office. To not only survive, but to flourish at OMB for 25 years, is a testament to her skill, dedication, and ability to understand and resolve policy differences. She was warm, compassionate, and trustworthy, and she will be missed.

      In 2016, Katherine was honored for her years of service as chief statistician of the US. Here she is with 2017 ASA President Barry Nussbaum.

        Shelly Martinez

        Executive Director, US Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking
        After the crush of 1990 census oversight subsided, Rep. Tom Sawyer’s subcommittee was ready to engage a broader set of statistical issues. But we didn’t really know how. Katherine, executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, decided to teach us. She became a familiar and trusted presence, with no question too mundane and no request too ambitious. She helped us develop a hearing series examining demographic trends informed by census and other federal statistics. She introduced us to experts on immigration, aging … and race and ethnicity. She helped Congress bring national attention to emerging trends and their policy implications.

        When we finished race and ethnicity hearings—her timing impeccable as ever—she was back at the Office of Management and Budget as chief statistician, ready for the handoff. To this day, the Sawyer-Wallman handoff was one of the most respectful I have witnessed between two branches of government, possible because of Katherine’s investment in helping Congress understand the federal statistical system and its stakeholders.

        That commitment sustained her as she led the executive branch standards update of 1997 in a way that honored everyday families, who she welcomed to participate as much as statistical system researchers and practitioners at all levels of government.

        ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson and Katherine during the science policy session at the 2016 Joint Statistical Meetings in Chicago, Illinois

          Steve Pierson

          Director of Science Policy, American Statistical Association
          I had the great honor to know Katherine and benefit from her wisdom, guidance, and kindness. Especially after her retirement, she was generous with her time, expertise, and insights—not to mention her editing prowess and Rolodex.

          After leaving government, she felt freer to express her personal views and sometimes referred to herself as “Wallman Unleashed.” The ASA memoriam touches upon her many contributions to ASA science policy as this version of herself but can’t begin to capture the hundreds of emails I have from her, the scores of documents she edited and contributed to, or the hundreds of hours of phone and Zoom calls I had with her.

          This year marks for me the end of an era—at least for the ASA if not the federal statistical community—that extends back to at least 1983, when she was elected an ASA Fellow.

          I will miss her greatly and strive to live up to her standards, recall her wisdom and knowledge, and carry on her devotion to objective and timely government statistics and their integrity.

          Robert Santos

          Director, US Census Bureau
          I’m heartbroken. The statistical and federal communities have lost a champion to federal statistics, scientific integrity, and public service. Others can speak of her manifold accomplishments in the federal statistical policy arena. I’m here to speak to Kathy’s humanity, to her passion for advancing the best science in creating official statistics.

          Kathy was unique. She brought her ‘whole self’ to the table, as I like to say. She nurtured federal statistical integrity, objectivity, and independence with a flair that commanded attention. Maybe that’s why she is one of my heroes.

          I met Kathy in the early 1990s during her term as president of the American Statistical Association. She was so welcoming, even though I was a mid-career statistician who worked outside the federal statistical system. Over the years, we encountered each other occasionally, working together as advisers or on policy issues to help the statistical community.

          Let me tell you, Kathy knew how to command an audience. She could effortlessly grab attention using humor and storytelling that wove issues into a cogent narrative. And she did it with aplomb. That’s how I will always remember her.

          Thank you for being our friend, Kathy. We miss you.

          Jennifer Park

          Study Director, Committee on National Statistics
          During Katherine’s tenure, the international statistical system faced perhaps the greatest challenges of the era. She met these challenges with integrity, grace, and wit.

          Katherine championed the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, which unified official statistics across all UN-recognized countries. She also lifted the international statistical community’s response in providing indicators and statistics for the UN Millenium Development Goals and its successor, the Sustainable Development Goals.

          But these positions of responsibility, even during exceptional times in our history, cannot explain the respect, admiration, and friendship so many of her peers held for her. Long after her tenure, she remained a thought leader, a wise counsel, and a trusted colleague.

          The secret of Katherine’s magic is both simple and extraordinary. As in all our work, our efforts rest in our personal relationships with others. Katherine met people where they were. She found shared values and goals. She believed the best of everyone—and expected it of herself and others. In this belief, she found—and shared—delight, pride, strength, and courage. Katherine would not let you down. Shown that respect, one could not let her down, either.

          Walter J. Radermacher

          Former President, German Federal Statistical Office, and Former Director General, Eurostat
          For me, Katherine was one of the few outstanding personalities in the international (official) statistics community. In her long professional career, she initiated and promoted many improvements and developments, both nationally and internationally. She achieved all this with her very special personality: collegiality; curiosity; profound knowledge of the subject; humor; and closeness to the people around her. I miss her.

          Gabriella Vukovich

          Former Chair, UN Statistical Commission, and Retired Chief Statistician, Hungary
          We lost a great woman and a good friend. A pillar of official statistics, steadily promoting our principles, always there to help and give sound advice. I will miss her wisdom, her kindness, and her humor.

          Pali Lehohla

          Former Chair, UN Statistical Commission, and Retired Chief Statistician, South Africa
          When she joined the UN Statistical Commission, Katherine would have possibly been the only woman chief statistician, or at the very least one of a very few. Kathy narrated how the chief statisticians referred to her: “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.” She never failed to remind the commission how far it came and how far it is yet to go.

          Kathy had a heart and mind for change, and change she led and observed as it progressed. On this score, she said:

          I must admit that when I first attended the commission in 1993—literally some six weeks after taking on the US 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 operations of the commission have always been run on consensus and persuasion through fact and logic. This remained the hallmark of Kathy. This she pursued throughout her career. Despite this inconvenient invasion of the commission by the diplomats [at times], Kathy kept her composure and soon the storm in the teacup would subside and the business of the commission would need interruption no more.

          Go well, Kathy, a heart and mind that calmed any storm.

          Pieter Everaers

          Former Director of International Cooperation, Eurostat 
          Her open mind and wide interest in the European approach to official statistics made her … a great partner to work with. In her approach, she also pointed to the need to learn and listen to the experiences of countries and regions in the rest of the world.

          At the formal UN Statistical Commission meeting, she functioned as an anchor point not only for her US colleagues but for the whole (global) official statistics community, sharing not only official statistics opinions and statements but also being interested and open to listening to personal stories and experiences. Her interventions in the discussions were always very clear and concise; the tone was always pleasant and often humorous. In her different roles as chair or ordinary member of the meeting, she was striving and almost always succeeded in bridging several viewpoints into … acceptable compromises.

          Lidia Bratanova

          Retired Director, Conference of European Statisticians
          For me, Katherine Wallman was one of the best examples of a highly professional career statistician who contributed enormously to the international statistical community. She should be an example for future generations in official statistics to follow. With her knowledge and experience, sense of diplomacy, and—most importantly—humanity, she was a model to be followed. She taught many of us the importance of the human touch, even in an area like statistics. I value her support to the Conference of European Statisticians and her friendship to the very end.

          Martine Durand

          Independent International Expert; Member, European Statistics Governance Advisory Board; Member, French Statistics Authority; Former Chief Statistician, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
          She was convinced that no matter how big or small a country, a well-functioning, independent, and trustworthy national statistical system was essential to fulfill its mission of delivering the truthful evidence needed by users to make well-informed decisions. And she believed that it was through the sharing of knowledge, experiences, and resources that this goal could best be achieved and progress made everywhere, at all levels and in all domains.

          Katherine really cared about people. With her unforgettable smile and unique style, she would point to solutions when problems arose, without imposing her own views. Although she might at times have strong opinions, she would always listen to others’ concerns and help find compromises.

          As she has left us, I realize how much I owe her and how much she will be missed. Her legacy will live on … among official statisticians from all parts of the world.

          Misha Belkindas

          Founder and Managing Director, Open Data Watch, and Former Director, World Bank Development Data Group
          Our interactions during UNSC [United Nations Security Council], UNECE CES [United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Conference of European Statisticians], and OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] statistical committee … were always very friendly and productive. We worked together well within the bureau of the CES. Meetings from time to time were held in [the] US hosted by the World Bank, IMF [International Monetary Fund], or the US government. Katherine always hosted memorable receptions in her house for the members of the bureau and a group of US statisticians.

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