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A Reexamination of the Portfolio of Major Federal Household Surveys Is Needed

GAO-07-62: Published: Nov 15, 2006. Publicly Released: Dec 15, 2006.

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Federal statistical information is used to make appropriate decisions about budgets, employment, and investments. GAO was asked to (1) describe selected characteristics of federally funded statistical or research surveys, (2) describe agencies' and Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) roles in identifying and preventing unnecessary duplication, (3) examine selected surveys to assess whether unnecessary duplication exists in areas with similar subject matter, and (4) describe selected agencies' efforts to improve the efficiency and relevance of surveys. GAO reviewed agency documents and interviewed officials. Using this information and prior GAO work, GAO identified surveys with potential unnecessary duplication.

At the time of GAO's review, OMB had approved 584 ongoing federal statistical or research surveys, of which 40 percent were administered to individuals and households. Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, agencies are to certify to OMB that each information collection does not unnecessarily duplicate existing information, and OMB is responsible for reviewing the content of agencies' submissions. OMB provides guidance that agencies can use to comply with the approval process and avoid unnecessary duplication, which OMB defines as information similar to or corresponding to information that could serve the agency's purpose and is already accessible to the agency. Based on this definition, the seven surveys GAO reviewed could be considered to contain necessary duplication. GAO identified three subject areas, people without health insurance, people with disabilities, and housing, covered in multiple major surveys that could potentially involve unnecessary duplication. Although they have similarities, most of these surveys originated over several decades, and differ in their purposes, methodologies, definitions, and measurement techniques. These differences can produce widely varying estimates on similar subjects. For example, the estimate for people who were uninsured for a full year from one survey is over 50 percent higher than another survey's estimate for the same year. While agencies have undertaken efforts to standardize definitions and explain some of the differences among estimates, these issues continue to present challenges. In some cases, agencies have reexamined their existing surveys to reprioritize, redesign, combine, and eliminate some of them. Agencies have also used administrative data in conjunction with their surveys to enhance the quality of information and limit respondent burden. These actions have been limited in scope, however. In addition, two major changes to the portfolio of major federal household surveys are underway. The American Community Survey is intended to replace the long-form decennial census starting in 2010. This is considered to be the cornerstone of the government's efforts to provide data on population and housing characteristics and will be used to distribute billions of dollars in federal funding. Officials are also redesigning the Survey of Income and Program Participation which is used in estimating future costs of certain government benefit programs. In light of these upcoming changes, OMB recognizes that the federal government can build upon agencies' practices of reexamining individual surveys. To ensure that surveys initiated under conditions, priorities, and approaches that existed decades ago are able to cost-effectively meet current and emerging information needs, there is a need to undertake a comprehensive reexamination of the long standing portfolio of major federal household surveys. The Interagency Council on Statistical Policy (ICSP), which is chaired by OMB and made up of the heads of the major statistical agencies, is responsible for coordinating statistical work and has the leadership authority to undertake this effort.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To deal with the longer term considerations crucial in making federally funded surveys more effective and efficient, the Director of OMB should work with the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy to plan for a comprehensive reexamination to identify opportunities for redesigning or reprioritizing the portfolio of major federal household surveys.

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

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In an August 12, 2008 e-mail from an OMB official in the Office of Statistical and Science Policy in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the official stated that OMB generally agreed with GAO's recommendation and would pursue it as OMB reviews federal agency information collections under the Paperwork Reduction Act, coordinates activities of the federal statistical system, and leads the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy (ICSP). The OMB official further stated that the best time to reconsider the priorities for and potential redesigns of the major household surveys in the context of the American Community Survey would be following the 2010 Census. OMB said it would work with the ICSP to plan the appropriate scope of this reexamination following the 2010 Census. We contacted OMB in September 2010 and received information on a workshop that OMB was hosting in conjunction with ICSP. We attended the workshop, found that the workshop did not address the recommendation and emailed OMB to ask if there was other information that might address the recommendation. OMB did not respond. GAO subsequently conducted a follow-up engagement looking at the efficiency of the federal statistical system, but OMB provided no additional updates during that engagement on the status of this recommendation. However, that follow-up work included an objective on the American Community Survey (ACS), a new survey at the time GAO-07-62 was issued that represented a major change for federal household surveys and offered the opportunity to reexamine the efficiency and effectiveness of those surveys. In particular, our follow-up engagement assessed the benefits and constraints of other surveys making greater use of ACS data and resources. GAO issued the follow-up report, GAO-12-54, in February 2012 with new findings and recommendations to improve the efficiency of the federal statistical system.

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