THE long-term credibility of a statistical agency depends on the agency’s staff and the culture they build and maintain for quality and professionalism. Thus, a statistical agency should recruit and support highly qualified and dedicated staff for all aspects of its operations, including subject-matter experts in fields relevant to its mission (e.g., demographers, economists), statistical methodologists who specialize in data collection and analysis, and other skilled staff such as budget analysts, procurement specialists, human resource specialists, computer scientists, and data scientists. Statistical agency staff should be recruited and promoted based solely on their professional qualifications and performance, and these personnel decisions should be made solely by agency career staff without external interference (see Practice 2).
To manage its staff effectively, an agency should provide them with opportunities for work on challenging projects in addition to more routine, production-oriented assignments. An agency’s personnel policies, supported with sufficient resources, should enable staff to extend their technical capabilities through appropriate professional and developmental activities (see below). These activities enhance the knowledge and skills of the staff members and pay dividends to the agency, helping keep it on top of new developments.
The personnel policies of an effective federal statistical agency should encourage the development and retention of a strong professional staff who are committed to the highest standards of quality work for their
agency and in collaboration with other agencies. Key elements of such policies include the following:
- Providing staff with continuing technical education and training, appropriate to the needs of their positions. Technical education may come from in-house training programs and opportunities for external education and training at universities or through professional societies. Supervisory and leadership training from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management or other institutions should also be encouraged for managers and emerging leaders.
- Structuring position responsibilities to ensure that staff have the opportunity to participate, in ways appropriate to their experience and expertise, in research and development activities to improve the quality of data and cost-effectiveness of agency operations.
- Encouraging and recognizing professional activities, such as publishing in refereed journals and presentations at conferences. Such presentations should include technical work in progress, with appropriate disclaimers.
- Supporting participation in relevant statistical and other scientific associations, including leadership positions, to promote interactions with researchers and methodologists in other organizations that can advance the state of the art. Such participation is also a mechanism for disseminating information about an agency’s programs and helps ensure a culture of scientific integrity in federal agencies.17
- Fostering interaction with other professionals inside and outside the agency through a variety of mechanisms, including opportunities to participate in technical advisory committee meetings, interacting with contract researchers and research consultants on substantive matters, interacting with visiting fellows and staff detailed from other agencies, offering developmental assignments with other relevant statistical, policy, or research organizations, and offering rotational assignments within the agency.
- Supporting participation in cross-agency collaboration efforts, such as the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology and its subcommittees. Such participation not only benefits the professional staff of an agency, but also contributes to improving the work of the statistical system as a whole (see Practice 7).
- Rewarding accomplishment by appropriate recognition and by affording opportunities for further professional development. The prestige and credibility of a statistical agency is enhanced by the professional visibility of its staff, which may include establishing high-level nonmanagement positions for highly qualified technical experts.
- Seeking opportunities to reinforce the commitment of its staff to ethical standards of practice.
Implementing these policies requires sufficient funding, time off, and institutional respect for professional education and development.
An effective statistical agency carefully considers the costs and benefits—both monetary and nonmonetary—of using contractor organizations, not only to collect data but also to supplement in-house staff in other areas, such as carrying out methodological research. Outsourcing can have benefits, such as providing experts in areas in which the agency is unlikely to be able to attract highly qualified in-house staff (e.g., some information technology functions), enabling an agency to handle an increase in its workload that is expected to be temporary or that requires specialized skills, and allowing an agency to learn from best industry practices. However, over time excessive outsourcing can also have unintended costs, including a transformation of agency staff to become primarily contract managers and grow less qualified as technical experts and leaders in their fields.
An effective statistical agency maintains and develops a sufficiently large number of in-house staff, including mathematical statisticians, survey researchers, subject-matter specialists, and information technology experts, who are qualified to analyze the agency’s data and to plan, design, carry out, and evaluate its core operations, so that the agency maintains the integrity of its data and its credibility in planning and fulfilling its mission. Agencies also need staff with specialized skills to create visualizations, metadata, and application programming inte-faces (APIs) for data dissemination (see Practice 9). At the same time, statistical agencies should maintain and develop staff with the expertise necessary for effective technical and administrative oversight of contractors. Given the increasing use of alternative data sources, agencies should not only encourage training in programming and software engineering to build up their staff’s skills in data science, but also encourage their
subject-matter experts to become fully knowledgeable about the content and quality of various relevant sources.
Having sufficient in-house staff with the required types of expertise is as critical as having adequate budget resources for enabling a statistical agency to carry out its mission. Statistical agencies are constrained by federal personnel policies that can affect whom they are permitted to hire (U.S. citizens) and by federal pay scales. However, some statistical agencies have been needlessly constrained in the number of agency staff they can employ regardless of their budgetary resources, resulting in too few staff to adequately handle the work needed to maintain existing programs and oversee contractors. As part of their fundamental responsibilities to support statistical agencies, departments housing statistical agencies should work with and support them in being able to hire a sufficient number of staff with the right expertise to carry out their missions.