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Why your survey answers are important

Thursday, May 15, 2014

This week we have a guest blogger, Tom Nardone, who was the BLS Associate Commissioner for Employment and Unemployment Statistics. Tom retired from BLS recently after a long and distinguished career of public service. Tom writes about how individuals and businesses benefit from participating in the surveys of BLS and the other statistical agencies.

Why should I spend my time filling out a survey to benefit the people on Wall Street and the Federal Reserve? That question came from a business owner who was asked to participate in a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. It’s a fair question that any government statistical agency needs to answer to do its job well. Most of the surveys that statistical agencies conduct are voluntary. While agencies try to make participation as easy as possible, providing answers invariably requires some time and effort. So why should individuals and businesses participate?

The answer starts to emerge if we rephrase the question asked by the business owner. Who benefits from the information collected in the survey? The business owner thought that it was only the financial markets and their government regulators. Others might believe that it is elected officials or perhaps those seeking elected office. Such conclusions are understandable given the great focus on how markets will react and how elections might be affected when survey results are released. However, the fundamental reason the surveys are conducted and the results are published is to provide the public—individuals, businesses, and policymakers—with information needed to make better decisions.

In some cases, the need is very direct. Business owners might want to know the average wages paid in certain occupations or how prices are changing for the materials and services they use. Job seekers might want to know what states or areas have high job growth or low unemployment rates. But what if none of these examples apply? Is there still a case to be made that there are benefits to the surveys?

Returning to the question posed by the business owner, it is certainly true that the Federal Reserve, other government agencies, and private companies use government statistics to set interest rates and make a variety of other decisions that affect the daily lives of nearly every individual and business. Doesn’t everyone benefit, at least indirectly, if those decisions are based on the most complete and accurate information possible?

What if you disagree with the current public policies and don’t want to support them? Would it make sense to withhold information? A similar situation might be if you did not like your doctor or the treatment she or he prescribes. Perhaps you are even considering changing doctors. But who benefits and who might be hurt by withholding information about your condition—you or the doctor? The answer would clearly seem to be that you the patient benefit from having the most accurate assessment of your condition, and you potentially may be seriously hurt by incomplete or inaccurate information.

Government statistics and the agencies that gather them are not perfect. However, their underlying mission is to provide a public good—objective, accurate, and relevant information that helps individuals and businesses make better decisions. To accomplish this mission, the statistical agencies depend on the cooperation of the public. Without your participation, these surveys would not accurately reflect the economic and social conditions of our country.