Want better policy? Give more support to federal statistics agencies

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Without reliable data about industry, about agriculture, about the U.S. population, it’s impossible to form good public policy, much less have a meaningful debate about it. Supplying that data falls to a collection of federal organizations known as the statistical agencies. Now the American Statistical Association is warning the government needs to bolster these agencies and better insure their objectivity and independence. With more, former U.S. chief statistician Katherine Wallman joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Wallman, good to have you on.

Katherine Wallman: Thank you. Great to be here. Yes, you have it absolutely right. The system that provides statistics in the United States is spread across many, many agencies, about a dozen of them actually have statistics as their primary mission. But we can count more than 100 agencies spread across every cabinet department of government that provides some portion of our nation’s statistical product. Our focus and concern at the ASA in issuing the recent report was on the developments, some of them actually long term and some of them I would say, exacerbated in the last several years by situations that have occurred. And that’s why we found it timely to issue a report hoping that a new administration and a somewhat new Congress will give attention to some of these long term and more immediate issues.

Tom Temin: Because in order to gather good statistics and good data on any piece of the American diverse economy, its people or its products or its companies, there’s no shortcuts often to really good data. And over the years, I think Congress has been the stingy one with some of the statistical agencies. Is your sense that that’s part of the issue here?

Katherine Wallman: That is a part of the issue. I have long been one who noted to folks and you’ve picked up the message somewhere that administrations, actually executive branch and the Office of Management and Budget, have been trying to attend to some of these resource issues in the system of agencies. And then the Congress, which has competing demands for these limited dollars, sometimes carves a little bit out of those requests from the administration because of the competing priorities. Far be it for me to say that the statistics on crime are more important than cops on the street. But that’s exactly the kind of trade offs that sometimes the congressional committees are faced with.

Tom Temin: And of course, the Census Bureau has just come through with a very tough few years. And the question about who they count and how they count them. And let’s talk about Census for a minute, this may be the ultimate statistical agency, one of the big ones. What are the real issues there do you think?

Katherine Wallman: For sure, Census is the largest statistical agency, and by orders of magnitude frankly, and indeed it has the largest data collection staff of any of the agencies that are actually employees of the Census Bureau. And so they often, during the other nine years so to speak, they often are involved with collecting data on behalf of some of the other agencies. In other words, each agency doesn’t have its own field force, if you think of it that way. The Census Bureau has been challenged over the last several years by intrusions into its business by policy folks who would prefer to do things like count citizens rather than counting the entire population by policy officials who would prefer to take those who are not citizens out of the account, and so on. And all of those things on top of a non-political pandemic, if you will, they had really caused a lot of trouble for the professional activities and staff of the Census Bureau.

Tom Temin: But if you are doing a count of everyone, isn’t it useful to know who is a citizen and who is not and of those that are not who are here legally, and who are here illegally? Not that the Census Bureau decides anything. But if it serves up that data, aren’t policymakers then better informed?

Katherine Wallman: I think I would argue that while those are, yes, important pieces of information for policymakers and the public to know that the Census Bureau is probably not the proper agency to be doing that kind of activity. It crosses the line between what is statistical in nature and what uses might be made of the data down the line. It also has a very chilling effect on the population you’re trying to get to respond. For example, if you’re trying to get the entire population to respond, and you have people who are non citizens, you have people who are here on other than legal basis, they may be reluctant to answer the Census period. So it actually depresses the response from the public and makes the Census Bureau’s job far more difficult than trying to achieve in the end and accurate total count of the population.

Tom Temin: And looking at some of the other agencies in the Statistical Association report, National Center for Education Statistics. Bureau of Justice Statistics, I guess you’d talk about every one of them at some point in this report. Is there any fundamental problem or challenge that is common to all of statistical gathering that maybe Congress could do something about?

Katherine Wallman: Yes, there are a couple of problems that I mentioned are long standing problems, not necessarily problems of the intrusion of politics into the work of these agencies. If you look at the National Center for Education Statistics, I can give you an anecdote. When I first started my career in the in the federal government, I worked at the National Center for Education Statistics, and there were 200 members of the staff, and the total budget for that agency was $14 million. If you look at the current statistics that we’ve provided in the report, you will find that there are now maybe you have on a good day 100 members of this staff, but a budget, that is probably 20 times what I said at the outset, bordering on $250 million a year. So the problem then is that while the actual field collection work, if you will, could be done by another statistical agency, such as the Census Bureau, or could be done in concert and is done often in concert with private sector companies. The fact that we have such a limited number of professional staff, technical staff in these agencies means that they’re not doing any of the data analysis, they’re not really doing the design of the data collection activities, they can’t really move the dial forward in terms of taking advantage of new data sources, and so on. So that lack of technical staff needs to be addressed, particularly at the National Center for Education Statistics, it’s also a problem at the Bureau of Justice Statistics and a couple of other agencies that we mentioned, when we look at all of them. Another fundamental problem has been kind of the lowering of the stature of some of these agencies, in terms of where they sit vis-à-vis other components of their departments. And that has led to them not having much of a voice in budget processes and resources and so on. Reductions in budgets over the years have led to really herculean efforts on behalf of the agencies to try to maintain the collections that they have and get some reports out, but has really precluded any initiatives, many of the initiatives that they would like to undertake that would give us more timely data would give us more fine grained data at the local level, the kinds of things that people are asking for as they try to do much more evidence, as we call it now, evidence based policy making. They just don’t have that kind of resource that they can take advantage of any anything from computing power to new data sources, that are just incredible and there for us to make use of, but they don’t have the staff to actually do the work to get there.

Tom Temin: Sounds like you’re calling for the Economic Service Bureau to be called back home to Washington, in the Agriculture Department.

Katherine Wallman: Actually, I trust my colleagues who headed at that agency a little bit more than myself on that. And I believe what they’re saying at this point is that careful thought needs to be given to what should happen next. I mean, do we want to have another reversal for the people? On the other hand, that agency is now incredibly short staffed because of the quick decisions that was made to move it without consultation, either with the staff or with the outside world frankly. And they have lost a lot of their expertise and staff, not just in numbers, but more importantly in expertise I think over over the last couple of years due to that change. And yes, I would argue that at least a certain portion of the agency ought to be operating here in Washington, among other things, because of the collaborations they have with other statistical agencies and with their parent departments.

Tom Temin: And finally, are you getting any signals from the statistical agencies to the extent that you’re aware, and the American Statistical Association from the administration that they perceive this to be an issue that’s worth tackling?

Katherine Wallman: I am getting good signals, particularly from some of the transition team members, some of whom I served with and previous administrations. This is on their radar very much and that they will be working with us to try to achieve some of the things that we have brought to their attention.

Tom Temin: Katherine Wallman was the United States Chief Statistician for 25 years, and we thank you so much for joining me.

Katherine Wallman: Thank you for having me.

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