Coordination and Collaboration with Other Statistical Agencies
STATISTICAL agencies should not be islands unto themselves. They need to engage and collaborate not only with their stakeholders but also with other statistical agencies and units in the federal government, in state governments, and internationally. The U.S. federal statistical system consists of many agencies in different departments, each with its own mission and subject-matter focus (see Appendix B). Yet these agencies have a common interest in serving the public need for credible, relevant, accurate, and timely information gathered as efficiently and fairly as possible. Moreover, needed information may often span the mission areas of more than one statistical agency: for example, both the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the National Center for Education Statistics have programs that relate to education and employment outcomes. Consequently, statistical agencies should not and do not conduct their activities in isolation.
An effective statistical agency actively seeks opportunities to conduct research and carry out other activities in collaboration with other statistical agencies to enhance the value of its own information and that of the system as a whole. Such collaboration is essential not only for smaller statistical agencies with limited staff and resources but, equally, for larger agencies so that they do not overlook useful innovations outside their own agency. When possible and appropriate, federal statistical agencies should collaborate not only with each other but also with policy, research, and program agencies in their departments, with state and local statistical agencies, and with foreign and international statistical agencies.
Such collaborations can serve many purposes, including standardization of concepts, measures, and classifications (see, e.g., NRC, 2004b, 2004c, and Appendix A); augmentation of available information for cross-national and subnational comparisons (see, e.g., NRC, 2000c, 2000d); identification of useful new data sources and data products; and improvements in many aspects of statistical programs.
In their new role as statistical officials for their departments, heads of the principal statistical agencies should help improve intradepartmental coordination of statistical activities. In addition, statistical agency heads should help improve statistical practices across government by providing advice and mentoring, as appropriate, to the Statistical Officials who are now part of the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy (ICSP). This type of collaboration can help foster the understanding and integration of principles and practices for statistical activities as they are more widely adopted across the federal government to implement the federal data strategy and the Evidence Act.
Coordinating Role of the Office of Management and Budget
The responsibility for coordinating statistical work in the federal government is specifically assigned to the chief statistician, who leads the Statistical and Science Policy (SSP) Office in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in OMB (see Appendix A). The chief statistician chairs the ICSP, which consists of the heads of the principal statistical agencies and statistical officials, to coordinate federal statistical programs and activities across the federal government (see Appendix B).
The chief statistician and a small SSP staff often create interagency committees as a vehicle for agencies to collaborate and work together on issues of common concern, such as concepts of interest to more than one agency (e.g., classifications of sexual orientation, gender identity, and race/ethnicity), the development and periodic revision of standard classification systems (e.g., of industries, products, occupations, and metropolitan areas), and best practices for domains such as survey methods, statistical use of administrative records, and confidentiality protection. SSP may then take the recommendations of these committees and issue more formal guidance or directives for all agencies to follow.
Forms of Interagency Collaboration
Interagency collaboration and coordination takes many forms, some multilateral, some bilateral. Some collaborations are formally chartered by OMB or the ICSP, to perform a specific task, while others result from common interests and may continue for years as a means of sharing information. Some interagency collaborations have been active for decades. Since 1975, the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology, chaired by SSP, has convened technical experts across the federal government to advise OMB and the ICSP on methodological and statistical issues that affect the quality of federal data. This committee also provides a forum for statisticians in different federal agencies to discuss issues affecting federal statistical programs and promotes collaborative research.
Other ongoing collaborations, such as the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics and the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, provide statistical information to the public in a broad area of interest. These forums produce regular products that draw data from a wide range of agencies to provide a broad description of their population of interest in publications and materials that are easily understood and used by a broad audience.
A common bilateral arrangement is an agreement of a program agency to provide administrative data to a statistical agency to use as a sampling frame, a source of classification information, a summary compilation to check (and possibly revise) preliminary sample results, and a source with which to improve imputations for survey nonresponse, reduce variability in estimates for small geographic areas, or substitute for survey questions. The Census Bureau, for example, uses Schedule C tax information from the Internal Revenue Service in place of surveys for millions of nonemployer businesses. Such practices improve statistical estimates, reduce costs, and eliminate duplicate requests for information from the same respondents.
In other arrangements, federal statistical agencies engage in cooperative data collection with state statistical agencies to let one collection system satisfy the needs of both. A number of such joint systems have been developed, notably by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the National Center for Health Statistics.
Another example of a joint arrangement is one in which one statistical agency contracts with another to conduct a survey, compile special tabulations, or develop models. Such arrangements make use of the special skills of the supplying agency and facilitate the use of common concepts and methods. The Census Bureau conducts many surveys for other agencies; both the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Agricultural Statistics Service receive funding from other agencies in their departments to support their survey work; and the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics receives funding from agencies in other departments to support several of its surveys.
It is noteworthy that many current practices in statistical agencies were developed through research they conducted or obtained from other agencies. Federal statistical agencies, frequently in partnership with academic researchers, pioneered the use of statistical probability sampling, the national economic accounts, input-output models, and other analytic methods.
In order to be relevant and useful, many federal statistics must be internationally comparable. The chief statistician at OMB is responsible for coordinating U.S. participation in international statistical activities. Many other agencies’ staffs participate in a wide variety of activities in collaboration with other national statistical offices, such as working groups sponsored by the United Nations Statistical Commission or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. These activities include participating in the development of international standard classifications and systems; supporting educational activities that promote improved statistics in developing countries; and learning from and contributing to the work of established statistical agencies in other countries in such areas as survey methodology, record linkage, confidentiality protection techniques, and data quality standards.
There are a growing number of international frameworks and tools that describe the common activities of statistical organizations and facilitate the documentation and sharing of data and metadata. The Generic Statistical Business Process Model (GSBPM) describes and defines the set of business processes needed to produce official statistics. It provides a standard framework and harmonized terminology to help statisti-
cal organizations modernize their statistical production processes, as well as to share methods and components (see Appendix C). There is also ongoing international work on using administrative and big data sources for federal statistics and on the quality frameworks for these data sources (see Appendix C).
Challenges and Rewards for Collaboration
Collaborative activities, such as sharing and integrating data compiled by different statistical and program agencies, standardizing concepts and measures, reducing unneeded duplication, and working together on methodological challenges, invariably require effort to overcome differences in agency missions and operations. There are also potentially greater threats to confidentiality because the linking of data provides more information that can lead to indirect identification. Yet with constrained budgets and increasing demands for more relevant, accurate, and timely statistical information, collected at reduced costs and burden, the importance of proactive collaboration and coordination among statistical agencies cannot be overstated. To achieve the most effective integration of their work for the public good, agencies must be willing to take a long view, to strive to accommodate each other, and to act as partners in the development of statistical information for public use. The rewards of effective collaboration can be not only data that are more efficiently obtained, of higher quality, and more relevant to policy concerns, but also a stronger, more effective statistical system.
Statistical agencies that collect similar information should consider integrating their microdata records for specified statistical uses as another way to improve data quality, develop new kinds of information, and increase cost-effectiveness. One cost-effective approach is for a large survey to provide the sampling frame and additional content for a smaller, more specialized survey. The National Health Interview Survey of NCHS serves this function for the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Similarly, the American Community Survey serves this function for the National Survey of College Graduates, which the Census Bureau conducts for the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (see NRC, 2008b).
Another key collaboration is with states. Many federal statistical agencies have relationships with states for data collection, but they would also
like greater access to state administrative records. Obtaining such access often depends on having good relationships with states (see Goerge, 2018; NASEM, 2017d).
Unfortunately, there are sometimes legal or administrative barriers that prevent statistical agencies from collaborating on common activities. Both the BLS and the Census Bureau maintain business establishment lists, but each of the lists derives from different sources (state employment security records for BLS and a variety of sources, including federal income tax records, for the Census Bureau). Research has demonstrated that synchronizing the lists would improve the accuracy of the information and the coverage of business establishments in the United States (NRC, 2006b, 2007c). However, business establishment lists cannot currently be synchronized between BLS and the Census Bureau because the latter is prohibited by law (Title 26 of the U.S. Code) from sharing with BLS (or BEA) any tax information on businesses or individuals that it may acquire from the Internal Revenue Service, even for statistical purposes. These barriers should be removed, as they negatively impact data quality and efficiency (see NASEM, 2017d; NRC, 2007c). It is hoped that implementation of the Evidence Act and identification of these barriers will lead to the needed legal and administrative changes to permit these joint statistical activities.