Information Quality Act:

National Agricultural Statistics Service Implements First Steps, but Documentation of Census of Agriculture Could Be Improved

GAO-05-644: Published: Sep 23, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 2005.

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The Information Quality Act (IQA) required the Office of Management and Budget to issue guidelines for ensuring the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information disseminated by federal agencies. As part of our long-term examination of the quality of federal information, under the Comptroller General's authority, we reviewed how the act was implemented by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and assessed the transparency of the documentation supporting its Census of Agriculture. NASS is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

NASS fulfilled its various procedural responsibilities and reporting requirements under the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) guidelines for implementing the act. For example, NASS drafted its own implementation guidance, and developed a mechanism allowing affected parties to request the correction of information they believe is of poor quality. As a result of our review, NASS has also taken steps to better document the criteria it uses to evaluate data users' input on the content of the Census of Agriculture. Building on these efforts, better documentation could improve the transparency of census data products. For example, the nine key products from the 2002 Census we examined lacked, among other things, discussions of any data limitations. This is contrary to NASS's own guidelines for ensuring transparency, which stress the importance of describing the methods, data sources, and other items to help users understand how the information was designed and produced. Although NASS complied with OMB's requirement to establish a mechanism under IQA to address requests to correct information, NASS has not documented its approach for handling correction requests not filed under IQA (NASS handles these correction requests using an existing, informal method). Agency officials told us that data users have been satisfied with the way NASS had responded to these requests. However, because NASS does not document its informal procedures for handling correction requests and lacks a recordkeeping system to log and track them, NASS could not provide us with specific data on the number of such requests it has handled, the nature of those requests, and whether and how they were addressed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASS concurred that its specialized reports, though generally short in length, should inform data users where to obtain information on the methods and procedures used to create the report so that data users will understand how an information product was designed and produced. NASS noted that it will now reference links to this information in its shorter, specialized reports. Specifically, NASS now has a link to its guidelines containing the 2002 Census of Agriculture publications on its Web site. In addition, future Census of Agriculture publications are to contain a standard reference to the NASS guidelines for data documentation.

    Recommendation: To help enhance the transparency of the Census of Agriculture's processes and products, we recommend that the Secretary of Agriculture direct NASS to ensure that census products fully address NASS's own guidelines for data documentation or at least contain links to such information. The list of 20 documentation practices that we developed, while not necessarily exhaustive, represents sound actions used by other statistical agencies and could form a starting point for NASS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASS concurred with GAO's observation that it might be useful to obtain "a more complete picture of the questions NASS receives about its data." However, NASS did not believe it would be cost-effective to attempt to maintain a detailed recordkeeping system to log and track every inquiry. As an alternative, NASS is now compiling a listing of the more common issues raised after census publication and disseminating the list (via the NASS Web site), a post-census summary of frequently asked questions that seek data clarification. NASS believes this approach will allow it to develop a better picture of the questions received for future planning as well as provide answers to those questions most likely to arise among other data users.

    Recommendation: To help enhance the transparency of the Census of Agriculture's processes and products, we recommend that the Secretary of Agriculture direct NASS to document and post on NASS's Web site its procedures for handling data correction requests not filed under IQA, and track the disposition of those requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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