What I wish I knew when I started: What is the federal statistical system?

By: APDU Board Member Beth Jarosz, Population Reference Bureau

It’s been more than two decades since I first looked up population characteristics in the (now defunct) Statistical Abstract of the United States, unemployment rate data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and gross product data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Since then I’ve learned (most of) the alphabet soup of U.S. surveys and statistics.

But what I wish I knew earlier is how the agencies are interrelated and how many ways there are for data users to keep up onand sometimes influencethe changes in the data systems we rely on.

What is the federal statistical system?

The U.S. federal statistical system is decentralized and includes many agencies, of which there are 13 principal statistical agencies:

In addition to those 13, there are more than 90 other agencies with data collection and statistical functions throughout the federal government.

This decentralized system is coordinated through the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). OIRA’s Statistical and Science Policy (SSP) Office establishes policies and standards, identifies priorities, evaluates agency budgets, reviews and approves information collection involving statistical methods, and more. In practice, OMB is involved in everything from setting standards for the collection and reporting of racial/ethnic information to guiding data sharing across the system.

The relationship between OMB and the federal statistical system is often depicted like the sun, with 13 rays (the agencies) radiating out from the center (OIRA and the Chief Statistician). But I think that imagery fails to capture the relationship between the agencies, which can share data and partner on projects. As just one example, the Household Pulse Surveyestablished to monitor conditions during the pandemicwas a collaborative effort across multiple agencies (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Census Bureau, National Center for Education Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics, Social Security Administration, USDA Economic Research Service, and others). 

Why does this matter?

While the Pulse surveys were a clear success, the decentralized system means that data sharing between agencies is not always so smooth. Getting data sharing frameworks (from legislative authorization to IT security systems) in place can be a years- or decades-long process (as it was for IRS data sharing with the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census Bureau).

Data user community support and recommendations can help shape the policies, standards, budgets, and practices that guide work across the federal statistical system. Users can provide input through sign-on letters, responses to Federal Register notices, comment during meetings, and more.

How can I stay up-to-date on the federal statistical system?

You may rely heavily on one type of data, such as education data, health statistics, or income. And there are data user communities, advisory committees, and information-sharing networks specific to each topic and agency. However, there are only a few places to keep track of changes across the entirety of the federal statistical system.

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