TO maintain its credibility and reputation for providing objective, relevant, and accurate information, a federal statistical agency must have authority to maintain its independence from political and other undue external influences. Within an agency’s ecosystem—namely, among its own department, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and Congress—there are often important safeguards for its independence. In some cases, these are enshrined in law, such as the requirement that data collected for exclusively statistical purposes may not be used for law enforcement.3 Others exist as longstanding governmentwide regulations promulgated by OMB that, for example, specify strict procedures for the release of statistical information that moves financial markets.4 Others may exist as departmental policies or agency policies, widely accepted norms, or longstanding practices.
Some statistical agencies have more safeguards for their independence built into their originating statutes than others do,5 and some agencies rely on a history for having certain authorities without formal acknowledge-ment by their department. The proper functioning of the statistical agency and the entire federal statistical system requires that there be strong and uniform recognition that it has the authority to do the following:
5 For example, the statute creating the Energy Information Administration specifically gives the Administrator the right to release statistical information without review by the Department of Energy.
- Make decisions over the scope, content, and frequency of data compiled, analyzed, and disseminated within the agency’s authorizing statutes based on sound scientific and professional considerations.
- Select and promote professional, technical, and operational staff based on their professional skills and knowledge (see Practice 4).
- Release statistical information, including accompanying press releases and documentation, without prior clearance regarding the statistical content of the release.6
- Be able to make pledges to respondents and other data providers that their data will be kept confidential and used only for statistical purposes (see Practice 8).
- Be able to meet with members of Congress, congressional staff, and the public to discuss the agency’s statistics, resources, and staffing levels.
In order to provide objective statistical information, a statistical agency must have highly qualified staff (see Practice 3), who can make decisions on the scope, content, and frequency of data compiled, analyzed, and disseminated without political or other undue external influence. Their decisions should be based solely on scientific and professional considerations. These decisions should be well informed by consulting with users and stakeholders, including policy officials in their department, on their need for information (see Practices 5 and 9), and they must also meet statutory requirements for content and OMB clearance of information collections.
The selection of qualified professional staff, including senior executive career staff, should be determined by the statistical agency. While departments may need to approve some appointments, they should allow great discretion to the statistical agency in selecting staff with appropriate expertise. Agency staff who report directly to the agency head should have formal education and deep experience in the substantive, methodological, operational, and management issues facing the agency, as appropriate for their positions. For the head of a statistical agency, professional qualifications are of the utmost importance, whether the profession is that of statistician or is in a relevant subject-matter field (NRC,
1997b). Relevant professional associations can provide valuable input about suitable candidates.
Statistical agencies must protect the confidentiality of the data they acquire throughout the lifecycle of those data and their use.7 Thus, statistical agencies must be able to exercise appropriate control over their data and the information technology (IT) systems on which they reside to securely maintain the integrity and confidentiality of individual records, ensure the data can only be used for statistical purposes, and reliably support timely and accurate production of key statistics. A statistical agency must demonstrate the integrity, confidentiality, and impartiality of the data collected and sustained under its authority to maintain the trust of its data providers and data users (see Practices 8 and 9). Such trust is fostered when a statistical agency has control over its IT resources and there is no opportunity or perception that policy, program, or regulatory agencies could gain access to records of individual respondents. When departments seek to centralize IT functions, they must support statistical agencies’ ability to control access to and use of their confidential data to ensure that the data are kept confidential and used only for statistical purposes.8
Although statistical agencies must be able to make pledges of confidentiality, it is not required that they do so for all of their collections. Statistical agencies may collect aggregated data from state and local governments that are already publicly available, and it would not serve the public good for the agency to then keep them confidential.9 Because it is expected that statistical agencies will collect data solely for statistical purposes with pledges of confidentiality, they must be very clear when any data they are collecting will have nonstatistical uses.10
Authority to release statistical information (including press releases) without prior clearance for the statistical content by department policy officials is essential so that there is no opportunity for or perception of political manipulation of any of the reports.11 Statistical agencies are
8 See 44USC 3563(b).
9 The Census Bureau collects data from state and local governments in the Census of Governments without a pledge of confidentiality, but Census only uses the information for statistical purposes. The National Center for Education Statistics collects some data on public schools that it makes publicly available, and does not promise to keep the data confidential.
11 The Energy Information Administration had its independence authorized in this regard in Section 205 of the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977; 42 USC 7135(d)): “The Administrator [of EIA] shall not be required to obtain the approval of any other officer or employee of the Department in connection with the collection or analysis of any information; nor shall the Administrator be required, prior to publication, to obtain the approval of any other officer or employee of the United States with respect to the substance of any statistical or forecasting technical reports which he has prepared in accordance with law.”
required to adhere to predetermined schedules for the public release of key economic indicators and to take steps to ensure that no person outside the agency has prior access except under carefully specified conditions.12 Agencies are also required to develop and publish schedules for the release of other important social and economic indicators and to announce and explain any changes in schedules as far in advance as possible.13
Statistical agencies are encouraged to use press releases to expand the dissemination of data to the public. However, such press releases must “be produced and issued by the statistical agency and must provide a policy-neutral description of the data.”14 Any policy pronouncements must be issued separately by executive branch policy officials and not by the statistical agency, and “policy officials of the issuing department may review the draft statistical press release [solely] to ensure that it does not include policy pronouncements.”15
Statistical agencies should also have dissemination policies that foster regular, frequent release of major findings from the agency’s programs to the public through the traditional media, the Internet, and other means. They should also provide access to the underlying data, using appropriate safeguards to protect confidentiality (see Practice 9) to permit their results to be replicated. In these ways, an agency can guard against the perception of political and other undue external influence that might bias its operations.
Finally, the head of the statistical agency or unit should be able to meet with congressional staff and members to explain the agency’s statistics and programs. Although department representatives may also attend these meetings, the department should fully support the statistical agency in this regard. Similarly, it is essential that statistical agency leadership and staff be able to interact directly with their users and stakeholders. While the department may benefit from hearing the needs and concerns of these groups and individuals, the statistical agency should have the autonomy to arrange these meetings.
Statistical agencies should be vigilant to threats to their independence, but they should also seek to educate officials in their ecosystem proactively about the appropriate roles and responsibilities of a statistical agency. Senior leaders of an agency should cite relevant laws, regulations, and these widely accepted principles and practices for federal statistical agencies as precedent and as necessary for the mission of the agency. Undermining the authorities described in this practice undermines the mission of the agency itself, so if serious threats are made to a statistical agency’s independence and references to the relevant laws, regulations, principles, and practices are not heeded, senior leaders should turn to the secretary of the department, the chief statistician at OMB, Congressional oversight committees, stakeholders, professional associations, and users to come to the agency’s defense. Such outreach should not be undertaken lightly but should not be avoided if the fundamental mission of the agency is at stake.
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