How U.S. government statistics work, explained by the country’s Chief Statistician

Author(s): 
Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
August 7, 2017

Nancy Potok is the chief statistician of the United States. I interviewed her last month about her role, and the challenges faced by the U.S. national statistics system. The interview has been lightly edited for style and flow.

Q: How does the U.S. statistics system work, and what do you do as chief statistician?

A: The U.S. has a decentralized statistical system. There is not one national office of statistics, but rather we have 13 designated statistical agencies that are embedded in departments. These include the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Commerce Department, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Labor Department. That means coordination. In 1995, a reauthorization of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 was passed. This act requires coordination of federal information policy by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and created the position of the chief statistician within the OMB. The law lays out duties and responsibilities, including ensuring the integrity, objectivity, impartiality, utility and confidentiality of information collected for statistical purposes. It also created the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy, which is made up of the heads of the designated statistical agencies.

So the role of the chief statistician is really derived from the duties that are laid out in the act. I’ve mentioned the coordination of the federal statistical system. Also, the chief statistician is responsible for generating governmentwide data collection standards. In addition, the chief statistician generates methodological guidance and promotes innovation. There are several guidance memos, and a detailed statistical directive that tells federal agencies that if they’re going to conduct a random sample survey, for example, there is a specific quality standard and method they need to use to ensure that the results are rigorous and high quality. Finally, the chief statistician also represents the U.S. internationally: I head the delegation to the United Nations Statistical Commission, and the Committee on Statistics and Statistical Policy for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Q: So the U.S. has a decentralized system, where you coordinate across a variety of different departments and agencies.

A: Yes, and there are other mechanisms, too. As I mentioned, we have the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy. There is also the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology. This is a committee the chief statistician sets up that has the most qualified experts from across the federal government on various aspects of statistical methodology. There is, for example, a subcommittee on disclosure avoidance. There are people who research best advances in survey methodology. As times change, the research changes, and some of the background and qualifications of the people on the committee change, too. They are now looking, for example, at combining data from administrative records, surveys and commercial data to improve the quality of statistical data products and releases. We’re always bringing in new people who are experts in developing technical areas onto the committee — that is one of the primary methods for coordinating research across the federal government that is happening throughout the statistical community.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post