Last month, the Census Bureau released its budget estimates to Congress for FY2012 requesting $1 billion for discretionary spending. Responding to the Administration’s request that all Agencies “curb non-essential administrative spending” and “seek ways to improve the efficiency of programs without reducing their effectiveness,” this is 16% below the annualized FY2011 funding budget authorization under the current Continuing Resolution. Cuts have to be made, and everyone has his/her own favorite data series and publications, but we must question the rationale for specific cuts announced in the Census budget.
While it’s difficult to determine the effects of some tweaks in terms of process “improvements,” or how attrition due to retirement of personnel will affect individual programs we all know and love, it’s easy to identify specific titles when they are singled out for discontinuation—not shifted from a monthly to quarterly or quarterly to annual publication, but terminated. All budget decisions are difficult choices, but we wonder whether anyone in the U.S. government understands why Statistical Abstracts and Current Industrial Reports are precisely the resources that should not be eliminated? Consider the rationale given for retaining some titles, eliminating others, and the process by which these decisions could have been made as part of a truly open government, 21st Century way, with users contributing to the conversation prior to the decision being made rather than after the fact.
Deciding What to Cut
When readying the FY2011 budget, the Census Bureau tapped teams to do thorough, systematic program reviews looking for efficiencies and cost savings. Priorities for programs were set according to mission criticality, and some cuts were made to the economic statistics program. According to Tom Mesenbourg, deputy director of the Census Bureau, “difficult choices had to be made” in order to reduce expenditures on existing programs and move forward with new initiatives in FY2012. Core input data that the Bureau of Economic Analysis relies on to produce the National Income and Product Account tables, for example, would be retained. New data sets needed to be added to the Census of Government regarding state and local government pensions (e.g., cost of post-retirement employee benefits). In addition, FY2012 requires funding for the planning stages of the 2012 Economic Census; data collection begins in 2013. So what’s left to cut?
It was felt that the popular Statistical Abstract of the United States—the “go to” reference for those who don’t know whether a statistic is available, let alone which agency/department is responsible for it—could be sacrificed. Staff will be moving to “Communications,” digitizing the data set. It is hoped that the private sector—commercial publishers---will see the benefit of publishing some version of the title in the future.
Statistical Abstract is a convenient and user-friendly resource to consult. In addition, this may be the original mashup. As an example, Table 663, Labor Union Membership by Sector, 1985-2009, indicates that while based on Current Population Survey, the source of some data in the table is a Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), the BNA publication, and research authored by two academics (their names, affiliation, and website URLs included). Published since 1878, the print and online version of this publication will cease with the 130th edition. Other publications getting the axe include:
- Current Industrial Reports (CIR), “providing monthly, quarterly, and annual measures of industrial activity” for highly specific products. Among the CIRs most recently posted to the website include Fats and Oils, Flour Milling Products, and Inorganic Chemicals. Perhaps most useful is the fact that the individual responsible for each publication is named and a telephone number (direct line) provided. From the Budget, we learn that the Bureau “will expand the NAICS industry product detail for some manufacturing industries in the 2012 Economic Census to minimize the loss incurred through the cancellation of the CIR program.”
- The County and City Data Book and State and Metropolitan Area Data Book will no longer be printed, but the data will remain available online. (Thankfully, the Census Bureau has a good help desk to assist those who find the online data tools confusing. For those who don’t believe that difficulties are encountered, try the 2010 Factfinder at http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml). Commercial publishers make a good deal of money compiling tables and ranking states/cities, so that the public may be able to purchase convenient presentations of this data should it find the books easier to use than pulling the data from the Census website.
- Other terminations mentioned in the Executive Summary (page CEN-6) include Federal Financial Statistics, Foreign Research and Analysis, Demographic Call Center, Population Distributions.
A close look at the individual program justification (beginning on page CEN-34 in the Budget submitted to Congress) highlights the costs associated with each statistical program and the number of persons involved in the data collection, analysis, and publication. Where the Census Bureau is requesting additional funding, it is because the General Services Administration (GSA) has raised the rent on its office space. For example, “The Census Bureau requests a net increase of $10.6 million to fund adjustments to current programs for Current Surveys and Statistics activities. The increase will provide inflationary increases for nonlabor activities, including service contracts, utilities, and rent charges from the General Services Administration (GSA).” In other words, one agency will be getting more money to pay another agency within the Federal government.
So what is the rationale for retaining some titles? The Advance Monthly Retail Sales publication will continue to be published because “television newscasts and the financial pages of newspapers and magazines regularly highlight the sales levels and trends from this report.” Ignore the fact that many groups track sales, and when was the last time you bought a book in a bookstore? (No eretailing in this report!) Construction Reports also remain available although people in the industry routinely turn to the National Association of Home Builders for housing starts building permits. What are the alternative publications for the CIRs covering Refractories or Control Instruments?
Perhaps most disturbing was the fact that input from users outside of the Commerce Department was not sought. The decision to terminate the product unfortunately did not factor in the number of hits on the Statistical Abstract website or the orders for print editions of the publication. It was simply that most of this data is available somewhere “on the internet.” Understanding who uses these data sets, how they are used, and availability of alternatives would seem crucial to the decision-making process.
The Era of Open Government
The Census has done a lot of things right in the recent past. The Agency should get credit for making the 2010 population census data available at a granular level so quickly. The Bureau might have considered using some of the newer social networking tools to garner input from users about which titles are most important to them, and why. By creating a wiki, individuals could “vote” for their favorite tool and explain why it was so important to their work. The decision-making process employed is antithetical to today’s best practices for good customer/public relations. The Bureau should want to be out in front, particularly when pushback is expected.
As these cuts were contemplated, the Census Bureau considered from where the pushback was likely to come. Library associations, individual’s blogs, library wikis, and a myriad of listservs have been buzzing, primarily concerning Statistical Abstract. Advocacy efforts began with official postings at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center. Haley Mooney, data services and reference librarian at Michigan State University permitted the letter she drafted to send to her representative to be posted to GOVDOC-L where it has taken on a life of its own. The American Library Association (ALA) Washington Office has issued an “Action Alert,” advising members to “contact appropriators and tell them to oppose the defunding of the Statistical Compendia Branch.”
A word to the wise: Interested parties should review all budget submissions by agencies to see if their favorite statistical program/publication is slated to be discontinued in this effort to reduce budget funding requests.
At presstime: My source in the Senate just told me that it’s likely that the Congress will ask agencies to “accelerate the budget cuts” in FY2012 in the FY2011 budget cycle as they are just now getting to that, 6 months late.