Statistical Agencies

Consolidation and Quality Issues Gao ID: T-GGD-97-78 April 9, 1997

Statistical agencies are dispersed throughout the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget has identified 70 federal agencies that each spend at least $500,000 annually on statistical work. Of the 70 agencies, 11 are considered to be the lead statistical agencies because they collect, produce, and disseminate statistical information as their primary mission. These 11 agencies together spend about $1.2 billion annually on statistical work. The mission of these agencies is to ensure that the statistical data they collect, produce, and disseminate are accurate, reliable, and free from political interference and impose the least possible burden on individuals, businesses, and others responding to requests for data. This testimony discusses (1) the quality of federal statistics, (2) how the federal statistical system's decentralized structure affects statistical quality, (3) whether consolidating the statistical functions now housed in the Commerce Department with those of other federal agencies could provide a more streamlined and effective federal statistical system, and (4) whether the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis benefit from being housed in the Commerce Department.

GAO noted that: (1) while the principal statistical agencies GAO has reviewed have generally adhered to applicable professional standards, there are reasons to be concerned about the quality of statistical data; (2) public and private sector experts have said that the current system needs a more coherent approach to measurement of investment, productivity, and services; (3) measurement problems, such as those concerning consumer prices, can affect budget and economic policymaking; (4) GAO's work has also demonstrated a deterioration in the quality of the decennial census, which GAO designated as a high-risk area in February 1997; (5) although GAO's work does not indicate the extent to which the decentralized structure is a major cause of the quality problems, it does show that the decentralization contributes largely to other problems, such as inefficiency, the lack of national priorities for allocation of resources, burden on data users and providers, and restrictions on the exchange of data among statistical agencies; (6) for example, in part because of the inability to share data, both Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics have compiled and maintained their own lists of businesses; (7) GAO has compared the dispersed U.S. system with Canada's centralized system; (8) the head of Statistics Canada has a higher level position than that of the U.S. Chief Statistician, can set and change priorities and shift resources easily, has access to all of the government's administrative records, and can share survey data internally under strict and uniform privacy requirements; (9) potential disadvantages associated with consolidation would include possibly diminished responsiveness to the needs of former parent departments and possible objections to the concentration of data in a single agency; (10) Commerce historically has not been managed on the basis of a unifying mission or shared goals and has decentralized its key administrative functions; and (11) while the Commerce relationship is not meaningless, GAO is not aware of any reasons that would prevent Census and the Bureau of Economic Analysis from performing their missions as part of another department.

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