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Federal Statistical Programs in Jeopardy
by
Posted On June 14, 2012


Information Today, Inc. has been monitoring events related to the passage of federal agency budgets as these decisions and Congressional votes have an impact on statistical programs and publications that our readers rely on to do their jobs. Last year, InfoToday Newsbreaks covered the possible de-funding of data.gov and the discontinuation of Statistical Abstracts, recently rescued by ProQuest. Last month, we addressed the fight in Congress over continued funding to conduct the American Community Survey (ACS) that centered on the nature of the questions, the issue of privacy, and the constitutionality of the program itself.

The Census Bureau is not the only data source frequently tapped by information professionals (among others) in jeopardy. Nearly every federal agency has some statistical program that will be affected by budget cuts. For example, as of Aug. 1, 2012, the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics may be a thing of the past. The compilation has been funded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), but it has been managed by the staff at the Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center at the State University of New York at Albany, since 1973. The Sourcebook “brings together data from more than 200 published and unpublished sources about many aspects of criminal justice in the United States,” including the following:

  • Characteristics of the criminal justice systems
  • Public attitudes toward crime and criminal justice-related topics
  • Nature and distribution of known offenses
  • Characteristics and distribution of persons arrested
  • Judicial processing of defendants
  • Persons under correctional supervision

Staff analyzes large datasets for quality, addresses discrepancies, and combines data concerning these subjects so that it’s easy for the public to understand and use. The center is in talks with three academic publishers seeking alternative funding to continue their work. According to Kathleen Maguire, project director and Sourcebook editor, “our goal is that there will be no gap in service to our users, and we are looking into possibilities to assure this.” (If you want to shape the future of the Sourcebook, complete their survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/6CHHMT5, or just follow the link from their homepage.)

If you have trouble finding the crime data you need, you can always contact the Federal Justice Statistics Resource Center at ASKBJS@usdoj.gov. What you can no longer do is contact the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) when you have questions about drug trafficking organizations, for example. As of June 15, 2012, this center is closed, and its website will no longer be maintained.

Established in 1993, the NDIC coordinates and consolidates “drug intelligence from all national security and law enforcement agencies.” Publications available via the NDIC website include the following:

  • "National Drug Threat Assessment" (annual report)
  • Drug Market Analyses examine the market dynamics and drug trafficking
  • Situation Reports (time-sensitive overviews of threats posed by various drugs)
  • SENTRY Watch relies primarily on qualitative or anecdotal information and involve the collection of incident reports
  • Drug Alert Warning combines the qualitative data collected in the DrugAlert Watch with quantitative data collected by NDIC analysts and partners

However, just because the NDIC is closing does not necessarily mean that these reports or functions will be discontinued. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will be releasing the 2013 Drug Threat Assessment shortly, and David Levey, Media Inquiries, tells us that the DEA is “now doing an assessment and working with users and customers to determine how we will proceed with the production of other NDIC publications.”

Making Life Easier

Federal agencies try to make their statistical data more accessible and customizable for use by the public, but some succeed better than others. Statistical Abstracts and the Sourcebook are two examples of compilations of data from a number of different sources and data streams. Data analysis tools are another way that agencies try to help users efficiently retrieve to the data they need. (The BJS Data Analysis Tools are available at http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=daa.)

A success story: For those overwhelmed by the nine subject area categories available from the BLS homepage—Inflation & prices; Employment; Unemployment; Pay & benefits; Spending & time use; Productivity; Workplace injuries; International; Regional resources—the “One-Screen” option is designed to guide users to the data series needed.

A less than happy outcome: While the original American Factfinder (AFF) provided access to data from the 2000 Census in an intuitive manner, Factfinder2 (AFF2), designed for the 2010 Census, is almost user-hostile, presenting far too many possible results as users screen for program characteristics.

Statistical Programs Within Other Federal Agencies

Many federal agencies have statistical programs vital to sectors of the American economy that they serve, and each has taken its own path to assure data continuity and quality. Understanding how these programs contribute to the economy is vital before changes are made that will be felt elsewhere. For example, will changes to the ACS affect our ability to conduct and accurately analyze future decennial census data? Edward J. Spar, executive director at the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics (COPAFS), has expressed concerns that if participation in the ACS survey is voluntary, the statistics for some data series will be too small to report with confidence, rendering the effort meaningless for trend analysis and forecasting purposes.

In 2011, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) struggled to determine how it should scale back its data, analysis, and forecasting programs necessitated by FY2011 budget cuts. In light of funding realities, the EIA employed a variety of remedies to adjust four categories:

  • Oil and natural gas information
  • Electricity, renewables and coal information
  • Consumption, efficiency, and international energy information
  • Energy analysis capacity

These remedies included publishing on a delayed schedule, even skipping a year of publication in some cases. For example, preparation of the 2012 edition of International Energy Outlook was halted, but the 2013 edition will be released next summer. (To track elements of other programs that have been restored, such as data collection of fuel oil and kerosene sales, and get a heads-up when programs are in jeopardy, take a look at the budget and performance documentation on the EIA website.)

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has already discontinued some short- and long-term macro forecasting units, regional projections, benchmark capital flow tables, and foreign direct investment (FDI) surveys; transferred Leading Indicators to the Conference Board; and adjusted several statistical series by raising reporting thresholds or reducing the level of detail provided (e.g., county personal income). If cuts to its FY2013 budget are deeper than expected, additional items are “on the table” as potential future cuts, including the following:

  • Eliminate advance GDP by industry statistics
  • Eliminate county and metro area personal income statistics
  • Eliminate monthly estimates of personal income and outlays
  • Scale back projects to modernize the accounts (e.g., better measures of health care inflation) and/or IT modernization and systems reengineering
  • Reduce detail, periodicity, and analysis of multinational corporation (MNC) data
  • Discontinue “underlying detail” tables for GDP and national accounts
  • Discontinue travel and tourism statistics
  • Discontinue paper publications

Given the decisions made with regard to eliminating publications that compile data available in multiple reports or web pages within an agency, perhaps we ought to go agency-by-agency identifying the resources most likely to be the first sacrificed in any budget debate. Could a Conference Board or ProQuest be found to save all of them? The COPAFS website provides an overview of agencies, their statistical programs, and current budget requests at http://www.copafs.org/reports/federal_statistics_in_the_fy_2013_budget.aspx. Director Spar warns that shifting the synthesis of data from multiple sources from agency staff to commercial publishers—eliminating from the workflow those responsible for data gathering and validating both statistics and methodology—may make the newly published resources unreliable, at best.

What is Being Done to Stem this Tide?

Several organizations have active advocacy programs underway, and their listservs often carry requests to “send a letter to your congressman.” The American Library Association has been a vocal supporter of government information, but any organization whose members use government data is likely to have similar efforts underway to “lobby” for the information they need in their sector of the economy.


Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser
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