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Protecting the public’s trust in federal statistics

Friday, December 12, 2014

Why should people trust BLS and other federal statistical agencies? Today I want to celebrate a new publication that answers this question. The new Statistical Policy Directive Number 1 (which some of us now call our “Prime Directive”) lays out what federal statistical agencies do and don’t do.

The directive makes a convincing case for why people can trust federal statistics. I’m happy to have it in place for all to see. My compliments to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which coordinates policies for federal statistical agencies, for publishing the directive!

The directive fits right in with what I tell groups around the country about our work. These groups nearly always include users of our data and analysis. Often these groups also include the people and organizations that provide information we use to create our statistics. When I describe the goals of BLS, I often use the acronym AORTA. Here’s what it stands for:

  • Accurate
  • Objective
  • Relevant
  • Timely
  • Accessible

The aorta is your body’s largest artery. It carries oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body. At BLS, we view good information as the lifeblood of democracy and free enterprise. People, businesses, and government leaders make better choices when they have crucial information that is accurate, objective, relevant, timely, and accessible.

The directive describes the four responsibilities of federal statistical agencies. These four reinforce our AORTA goals. Here’s a summary:

  1. We must produce information that is relevant for households, businesses, and governments. That means we must speak regularly to the people who use our information to understand their needs. We also must provide information as soon as we can and make it easy to get.
  2. We must produce information that is accurate and explain how we ensure accuracy. That means we must continue seeking new technologies and methods for collecting information and making it available for people to use. We must explain how we collect the information and any limitations or possible sources of error. When we discover errors, we need to tell the public and explain what we will do to correct the errors.
  3. We must do our work without political or other types of bias. That means we must separate our work from the parts of the government that make or enforce laws and regulations and run programs.
  4. We must protect the trust of the people and organizations that provide information for our surveys and administrative records. Most of the surveys that statistical agencies conduct are voluntary. Individuals, businesses, and other organizations don’t have to take part in our surveys, and yet they respond at high rates. They do so because we uphold their trust. We pledge to use the information they provide only for statistical purposes. In other words, we use the information to study groups and not the individuals or organizations that compose those groups. We never let other agencies use the information we collect to enforce laws or regulations or manage government programs.

These principles have been around for a while in other forms. Having them restated and enshrined in our new “Prime Directive” can help ensure the public’s trust in federal statistics. Please read them for yourself and let me know what you think!