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Statistics corner.

PRIOR TO THE 1976 election, I participated in the preparation of a report called, "The Framework for Planning U.S. Federal Statistics." The purpose of the document was to prepare background material for revitalizing the federal statistical system after the 1976 elections. Work on the document was initiated in early 1975 with the view that there is a narrow window at the beginning of any new Administration for considering long-range problems, such as redesigning federal statistics. At the beginning of the Clinton Administration, a similar opportunity exists, but there is not a similar document to set forth such a program. In this column I will outline some of the background and philosophy of the effort in 1976 and make a few suggestions for action in 1993.


Federal statistics do not get development in a vacuum. Essentially they are the byproduct of the needs of federal program administrators and the Congress. Most federal statistics are derived from information collected as part of governmental regulatory and administrative actions. This was dramatically demonstrated in the 1960s. At that time, aggressive social policy programs led to new statistical programs designed to monitor progress on achieving social goals and for evaluating the impact of new social initiatives. During much of the 1960s, the budgets for statistical agencies soared, rising at a compound growth rate in nominal terms of more than 15 percent per year.

This rapid growth slowed with the efforts of the Nixon Administration to reduce the Great Society Programs of the 1960s. By 1974, when President Ford assumed office, federal statistical program growth had dramatically slowed. While President Ford signed a bill authorizing a mid-decade Census, no funds were included in his "No New Starts" budget for 1976 for the planning and design of this newly proposed effort to keep track of rapidly changing social conditions by making a census every five years.

As a result of sharply revised federal policy for social intervention, including a movement for federal-level deregulation, it was clear that the time was ripe for a revaluation of statistical program priorities. This insured that available resources could be allocated to meet future statistical needs while improving the accuracy of the existing statistical measures. The introduction to the Framework in 1976 pointed out some of the requirements for setting priorities in statistical programs. It stated:

"The ultimate resolution of statistical issues involves an important collaboration among the providers of the information (the respondents to various Federal inquiries), the collectors and analyzers of this information (the statistical and analytical agencies), and the private and public decisionmakers who incorporate that information into their decision processes.

"All three sectors -- the providers, the statistical agencies, and the decisionmakers -- are essential to the development of the Federal Statistical System. Obviously, no statistics would be available if respondents failed to cooperate in surveys. The statistical agencies, in their central role of creating effective collection mechanisms, providing quality control, and compiling and analyzing results, have important creative contributions to make as a result of this direct involvement in the statistical process.

"Finally, the decisionmakers who utilize the information are able to provide important insights into the level of quality and timeliness required to assure appropriate policy use of statistical information."


After eight years of Republican control of the White House, President Carter came into office with an anti-Beltway establishment approach to government. His initial goals included a large-scale effort to reorganize the government, and his political appointees were particularly wary of the career bureaucrats that had served under Republican leadership.

As part of the effort to reduce the White House staff, the statistical policy function was transferred to the Department of Commerce from the Office of Management and Budget. Although many of the executive powers were transferred, the influence of the Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards weakened as OMB officials still assumed many of the delegated functions, such as review of legislation for proper use of statistical series in fund-allocation formulas.

Needless to say, although the Framework study was formally published in 1978, it had only a limited influence as the President's Reorganization Team was undertaking an independent review of the federal statistical system. The statistical reorganization project results are summarized in the Bonnen report published in Statistical Reporter, May 1980, (pps. 191-212) in an article called "Improving the Federal Statistical System: Report of the President's Reorganization Project for the Federal Statistical System." In December 1980 (after the election of President Reagan), Congress enacted the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. This Act moved statistical coordination back to the Office of Management and Budget, but now it was significantly reduced in size and stature. Today the Office of Statistical Policy has a very small staff of five professionals and two secretaries (compared with the staff of twenty-nine permanent and eleven detainees who prepared the Framework).


Thus, successive presidential transitions have buried the focal point for statistical coordination, and the effort of the late 1970s to revitalize the statistical system has largely disappeared. Clearly, the drive to plan statistical systems to meet future needs better has been overcome by the efforts of the past fifteen years to:

1. Reduce federal spending (it is even more virulent today than ten or twenty years ago);

2. Reduce the White House staff (it is much larger today than when Carter assumed office); and

3. Reduce federal paperwork and regulation (fillings in the Federal Register increased sharply during the Bush Administration).

During the Bush Administration, the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Michael Boskin, led an effort to draw attention to the need for improving economic statistics. That effort was a frequent topic in this section of Business Economics. Unfortunately, the budget appropriations for 1993 withdrew several of the key initiatives, and a new leader to push forward the needed improvements is not evident.


Improvement of federal statistical programs is not a good goal of political employees. It takes a very long time for new statistical programs to be designed, tested, funded and implemented. Then, once a new series is in place it takes several years before it is truly useful, until a time series becomes available. The steps involved in the development and acceptance of a new economic statistics program are as follows:

1. Define new concepts, new needs, and new approaches (two to four years);

2. Convince the Administration to fund the program (one to three years);

3. Obtain Congressional approval (one to three years);

4. Test program (one to two years);

5. Implement program (one year); and

6. Develop time series (minimum of three years).

Thus, even in the best of worlds, it takes nine years before results are available for the policymaker to use or for the politician to gain recognition of achievement. We are now less than nine years from the twenty-first century. Will we have better economic and social statistics after the year 2000?

The answer can be "yes" if we act now. There is an enormous opportunity for the Clinton Administration to make a true long-term contribution by reversing the tendency of the past sixteen years to focus on short-term issues. In this way we can begin to build the statistical foundation for better understanding our rapidly changing world.

What will it take to make this happen? First, because federal statistics are derived from existing federal programs that regulate society and the economy, e.g., programs like collecting taxes, issuing benefits, collecting Census data for apportionment, etc., a necessary first step is to review current data needs in the light of future requirements. Are we collecting the right data currently, and what will we need in the future? Second, there are many disparate users of statistics, i.e., business economists, planners, investors, and local leaders, that have a stake in what types of information should be collected. An effort to define these broader needs is essential if public support is to be obtained. Third, new technology, (including, e.g., Electronic Data Interchange, or EDI, and document scanning of universal bar codes) is reducing paperwork and creating new opportunities for more efficient methods of data collection.

In order to take advantage of both the current window of opportunity and these rapidly changing conditions in the business world, I am initiating an effort to set forth an agenda for change in the statistical system. This effort includes compiling recommendations in the literature and various review committees that have been published during the past ten years, meeting with leaders of the statistical profession, and holding discussions with key users of statistics.

As a member of the National Association of Business Economists, you are a key user of the government's economic and social statistics. Through this column, I want to encourage you to send me your suggestions for improvements and priorities in the development of federal statistics. Your suggestions will be reviewed by the Statistics Committee and will be considered for inclusion in my overall report on the proposed agenda for developing a statistical system that will meet our needs in the early twenty-first century. Please send your comments to:

Joseph W. Duncan Vice President, Corporate Economist and Chief Statistician The Dun & Bradstreet Corporation 299 Park Avenue New York, NY 10171

Joseph W. Duncan is Vice President, Corporate Economist and Chief Statistician of The Dun & Bradstreet Corporation New York, NY. He also is President of NABE.
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Title Annotation:The Framework for Planning U.S. Federal Statistics
Author:Duncan, Joseph W.
Publication:Business Economics
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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