Data Quality:

Expanded Use of Key Dissemination Practices Would Further Safeguard the Integrity of Federal Statistical Data

GAO-06-607: Published: May 31, 2006. Publicly Released: Jun 5, 2006.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Mathew J. Scire
(202) 512-3604
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

In 2003, the Bureau of the Census (Bureau) changed the day and location of the release of its Income and Poverty Estimates. Some data users believed the change was an effort to suppress unfavorable news and questioned the Bureau's data dissemination practices. GAO was asked to assess whether (1) the Bureau adhered to its dissemination practices for the 2003 and later releases, and (2) the Bureau and 13 other federal statistical agencies follow data release practices recommended by the National Research Council (NRC). GAO reviewed the Bureau's dissemination process for the 2003 thru 2005 Income and Poverty Estimates.

While not all of the Bureau's data dissemination practices are documented, GAO was able to determine through discussions with Bureau officials and review of available documentation, that the Bureau adhered to most of its long-standing data release practices. However, the Bureau did depart from the traditional day and location for the release of the Income and Poverty Estimates report in 2003 and subsequent years. According to the Bureau, the day of the 2003 release was changed because of a delay in producing a companion report, and the location was changed from Washington, D.C., to Suitland, Maryland, in part, because the Director of the Census Bureau stated that he wanted to raise awareness that the construction of its new headquarters had just started. Some of the Bureau's documented practices, such as guidance on who has authority to choose the release date and location, lacked specificity. Also, the Bureau's documented Income and Poverty practices are outdated as they are contained in a 21-year-old memo. The Bureau is updating it, to among other things, reflect current technology. Most of the 14 statistical agencies in GAO's review generally adhered to NRC's guidance, important for (1) the wide dissemination of data, and (2) maintaining a strong position of independence. Still, there were some notable gaps. For example, 6 of the 14 agencies lacked dissemination policies (as recommended by NRC) that promote the regular and frequent release of major findings from an agency's statistical program. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in concert with other statistical agencies, is developing governmentwide guidance on the release and dissemination of statistical products that, according to OMB officials, parallels NRC's and other generally accepted release practices. OMB's guidance could foster more consistent adherence to practices that promote broader dissemination of statistical data and enhance its credibility, especially to the extent they address gaps GAO found between agencies' data dissemination practices and NRC's guidance.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Census Bureau drafted an updated document that describes, in full detail, the data dissemination practices for its Income and Poverty Estimates.

    Recommendation: To help improve the Bureau's data dissemination practices and thus enhance the agency's actual and perceived position of independence, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Bureau to, as part of its efforts to update its practices for releasing the Income and Poverty Estimates, fully document its key data dissemination practices for releasing the Income and Poverty Estimates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OMB agreed to consider GAO's recommendations in the context of refining the statistical dissemination directive that was recently (August 1, 2007) printed in the Federal Register for public comment. The draft Statistical Policy Directive does in fact cover the gaps GAO identified between NRC's existing guidance and agencies' practices. Including the extent to which agencies should have 1) full authority to release statistical information without prior clearance by their respective departments, (2) data dissemination policies that foster the frequent release of major findings from agency's statistical programs, and (3) an established publications policy describing the types of reports and other releases an agency has available.

    Recommendation: To help improve governmentwide data dissemination practices that would further safeguard the integrity of federal statistical data, the Director of OMB should ensure his agency, in completing its draft directive on the release of federal statistical products, considers whether and how to address areas where our survey indicates there are gaps between NRC's existing guidance and agencies' practices. These areas include the extent to which agencies should have (1) full authority to release statistical information without prior clearance by their respective departments, (2) data dissemination policies that foster the frequent release of major findings from agency's statistical programs, and (3) an established publications policy describing the types of reports and other releases an agency has available.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OMB's draft Statistical Policy Directive includes the characteristics GAO identified as important for agencies' data dissemination practices, including (1) clear definitions of what is covered by the directive, (2) the extent to which agencies should document their data dissemination guidance, (3) the amount of flexibility agencies have in implementing OMB's guidance, (4) procedures for monitoring agencies' adherence to its directive, and (5) the feasibility of requiring agencies to distribute data products through a standard set of channels as well as through other outlets as appropriate.

    Recommendation: The Director of OMB should direct his agency to include in its directive additional elements and characteristics important for agencies' data dissemination practices, including (1) clear definitions of what is, and what is not covered by the directive, (2) the extent to which agencies should document their data dissemination guidance and how often the guidance should be reviewed, (3) the amount of flexibility agencies have in implementing OMB's guidance, (4) procedures for monitoring agencies' adherence to its directive, and (5) the feasibility of requiring agencies to distribute data products through a standard set of channels as well as through other outlets as appropriate, so that the public will always know at least one source it can turn to and obtain agency data.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Oct 10, 2014

Sep 30, 2014

Sep 22, 2014

Jul 9, 2014

May 14, 2014

Apr 30, 2014

Mar 26, 2014

Jan 13, 2014

Dec 9, 2013

Dec 6, 2013

Looking for more? Browse all our products here