Federal statistical agencies must provide objective, accurate, and timely information that is relevant to important public policy issues.
FEDERAL statistical agencies exist to provide accurate and timely information relevant for policy and public use. Federal statistics can describe economic conditions, delineate societal problems, and inform policy making and the evaluation of programs. To provide the relevant statistical information needed by policy makers in Congress and the executive branch, as well as by other users, statistical agencies must have a solid understanding of the public policy issues, federal programs, and information needs in their domain and a clear mission (see Practice 1). A major advantage of the decentralized federal statistical system in the United States is that separate federal statistical agencies are located in appropriate departments and are closer to the policy makers and programs in those areas. However, this can also present a challenge when different agencies produce different statistical estimates of the same or similar phenomena. It is essential that statistical agencies coordinate and collaborate with each other (see Practice 7) to ensure that coherent and consistent statistical information is provided on major policy issues.
To ensure that they are providing relevant information, statistical agencies need to reach out to a wide range of their data users, including staff in their own departments and other federal departments who use their data, members of Congress and congressional staff, state and local government agencies, academic researchers, businesses and other organizations, organized constituent groups, and the media. Agencies may need to expend considerable energy to open avenues of communication more broadly with current and potential users (see Practice 9).
Statistical agencies have used a variety of approaches to engage with users. Advisory committees are one tool to obtain the views of users outside a statistical agency (see National Research Cound [NRC], 1993a, 2007b).1 Many agencies obtain advice from committees that are chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (see Box II-1 for some examples).2 Some agencies obtain advice from committees and working groups that are organized by an independent association, such as the American Statistical Association’s Committee on Energy Statistics for the Energy Information Administration. Holding workshops and conferences for data users or engaging with them at professional conferences are also valuable activities for facilitating interchange among users and agency staff (see NRC, 2013a). Online mechanisms, such as blogs and web surveys, may assist a statistical agency in obtaining input from users (see Practice 9). Similarly, agencies can use web analytics to better understand their user base and to assess the accessibility and usability of their website and data products. Offering positions to data users as fellows or temporary employees can also help a statistical agency gain a richer perspective on user interests and concerns.
Statistical agencies should periodically review their data collection programs and products to make sure they remain relevant (see Practice 6). Relevance should be assessed, not only for particular programs or closely related sets of programs but also for an agency’s complete portfolio, to assist each agency in making the best choices among program priorities given available resources.
To increase data quality and relevance, an agency’s own staff should actively analyze its data (Martin, 1981; Norwood, 1975; Triplett, 1991). Such analyses may examine correlates of key social or economic phenomena or study the statistical error properties of the data. Carrying out such work can lead to improvements in the quality of the statistics, to the identification of new needs for information and data products, to a reordering of priorities, and to a deeper understanding of data users’ needs (see Practice 5).
The substantive analyses that statistical agencies produce as a regular part of their dissemination and research activities will likely be helpful
1 Some statistical agencies had advisory committees that were later disbanded by their departments. This has occurred for the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics.
to policy analysis units in their departments, as well as other data users. These analyses typically describe relevant conditions and trends over time and across geographic areas and population groups (e.g., high school completion rates by race, poverty rates for each year, or state variation in employment rates). A statistical agency may properly extend such analyses at the request of a policy analysis unit or other data user, for example by examining trends for particular population groups. Further, statistical agencies have an obligation to provide useful data to Chief Evaluation Officers to conduct their work.
However, statistical agencies should be careful not to become involved with policy development or implementation, because these activities could affect their ability (or the perception of their ability) to conduct impartial and objective statistical activities. A statistical agency should neither make policy recommendations nor conduct substantive analyses of policies, although it may advise on the availability and strengths
and limitations of relevant information without being involved in the analysis. The distinction between analysis consistent with the mission of a statistical agency and policy analysis is not always clear, and a statistical agency must consider carefully the extent of policy-related activities that are appropriate for it to undertake to maintain its primary mission of providing impartial and objective statistical information for public use (see Practices 1 and 2).
Practices That Are Particularly Relevant for Principle 1