Principles and Practices

for a Federal Statistical Agency

This report is intended to support the invaluable role of widely available, trustworthy, relevant, accurate, and timely government statistics. The publication and the information below draws on CNSTAT’s many studies of specific statistical and research agencies, programs, and topics. Previous editions have proven helpful to Congress, OMB, federal statistical agencies, and others about what constitutes an effective and credible statistics entity. Beginning with the second edition in 2001, CNSTAT has updated the document every four years to provide a current edition to newly appointed cabinet secretaries and other personnel at the beginning of each presidential administration or second term.


Value of National Statistics

People rely on data and statistics to live their lives, often without realizing it. They may check weather, traffic, or air quality reports and other readily available data to guide how they go about their day. They may use data to inform key family and personal decisions, such as where to live, based on information about housing, crime, schools, and jobs. In their own jobs, people may use data to guide policies and programs, make investment decisions, plan for the future, and develop knowledge.

The cornucopia of information that people use in all these ways and often take for granted comes from a wide range of sources—censuses, surveys, sensors, commercial transactions, and records of all kinds. Many actors provide useful information, but, across the world, central governments have the role of producing key national statistics to inform policymakers and the public.

How Statistical Information Powers Government and Policy-Making

A democratic system of government depends on the unhindered flow of impartial, scientifically based statistical information to its citizens on a wide range of issues.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a decennial census of the population every 10 years for determining the allocation of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the states. This reapportionment in turn triggers the redistricting process by states to redraw the boundaries of congressional districts.

Whether starting or expanding a business, exploring prospects for different occupations, anticipating demand for products, projecting the labor force, evaluating effects of trade patterns, targeting investments, forecasting energy prices, planning for hurricanes, funding pension plans, devising better ways to serve customers with disabilities, or finding suppliers—business owners and community members rely every day on data produced by the federal government.

Federal statistics provide high-quality, comparable information across the country. The American Community Survey (ACS), for example, provides key information that states and local governments use for disaster preparedness, economic development and workforce planning, public health surveillance, and regional transportation planning.

Data on the condition of housing and finance to inform housing policy come from the ongoing American Housing Survey; statistics on the various types of energy used for heating, cooling, information technology, and other uses are provided by energy consumption surveys for commercial buildings and for residences.

Federal Statistical Agencies and Units

There are 13 principal statistical agencies located in cabinet departments and independent agencies and several smaller, more focused recognized statistical units, whose activities are predominantly the collection, compilation, processing, or analysis of information for statistical purposes.


Federal statistical agencies are coordinated by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and are subject to government regulations and guidance, but their mission and contributions to the public good are best seen as resting on five well-established and fundamental princi­ples, as follows:

Hover over a practice number for explanation.

1 Relevance to Policy Issues and Society: Federal statistical agencies must provide objective, accurate, and timely information that is relevant to important public policy issues.
Practices: 2 5 6 9

2 Credibility Among Data Users and Stakeholders: Federal statistical agencies must have credibility with those who use their data and information.
Practices: 1 2 3 4 5 6 8 9 10

3 Trust Among the Public and Data Providers: Federal statistical agencies must have the trust of those whose information they obtain.
Practices 2 3 4 5 7 8

4Independence from Political and Other Undue External Influence: Federal statistical agencies must be independent from political and other undue external influence in developing, producing, and disseminating statistics.
Practices: 1 2 3 4 6

5 Continual Improvement and Innovation: Federal statistical agencies must continually seek to improve and innovate their processes, methods, and statistical products to better measure an ever-changing world.
Practices: 3 4 5 6 7 9


In order to fulfill these five principles, 10 practices are essential for statistical agencies to adopt. These practices represent the ways and means of making the basic principles operational and facilitating an agency’s adherence to them.

A statistical agency’s mission includes its responsibility to: 1) produce and disseminate relevant and timely statistical information; 2) conduct credible and accurate statistical activities; 3) conduct objective statistical activities; and 4) protect the trust of information providers by ensuring the confidentiality and exclusive statistical use of their responses.

To maintain its credibility and reputation for providing objective, relevant, and accurate information, a federal statistical agency must have authority to make decisions over the scope, content, and frequency of data compiled, analyzed and disseminated, and to release statistical information and documentation without prior clearance regarding the statistical content of the release.

An effective statistical agency devotes resources to developing and implementing standards for data quality and professional practice, and also has policies and practices to instill the highest possible commitment to professional ethics amongst staff.

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 agencies need active research programs that are closely tied to their mission of producing relevant and high-quality statistics. Research is not an “optional” or “extra” activity that can be deferred whenever resources are tight. It produces the innovation that refreshes relevance.

Statistical agencies should have processes in place to support regular evaluations of their major statistical programs and their overall portfolio of programs. Reviews of major data collection programs and their components should consider how to produce relevant, accurate, and timely data in the most cost-effective manner possible.

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.

To maintain a relationship of respect and trust with survey participants and other data providers, a statistical agency should respect their privacy, minimize the reporting burden imposed on them, and respect their autonomy when they are asked to participate in a voluntary program to collect data.

A statistical agency should continually strive to obtain input from data users on its programs, products, and dissemination tools and methods. Understanding data users’ needs and how they use data products is critical for making an agency’s data services as relevant, accurate, timely, and accessible as possible.

A statistical agency must be transparent about how it acquires data and produces statistics and be open about the strengths and limitations of its data, including a full description of the purpose of the program; the methods and assumptions used for data collection, processing, and estimation; information about the quality and relevance of the data; analysis methods used; and the results of research on the methods and data.

Get the Report

Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency
Government statistics are widely used to inform decisions by policymakers, program administrators, businesses and other organizations as well as households and the general public. Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency, Seventh Edition will assist statistical agencies and units, as well as other agencies engaged in statistical activities, to carry out their responsibilities to provide accurate, timely, relevant, and objective information for public and policy use. This report will also inform legislative and executive branch decision makers, data users, and others about the characteristics of statistical agencies that enable them to serve the public good.

What is CNSTAT?

The Committee on National Statistics is a unit at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine whose mission is to provide advice to the federal government and the nation grounded in the current best scientific knowledge and practice that will lead to improved statistical methods and information upon which to base public policy. CNSTAT seeks to advance the quality of statistical information, contribute to the statistical policies and coordinating activities of the federal government, and help provide a forward-looking vision for the federal statistical system and national statistics more broadly in service of the public good.