Our Nation’s Data Infrastructure Urgently Needs Investment

 

Count on Stats

 

“… our nation’s data infrastructure is at grave risk.”
               -Katherine Wallman, Chief Statistician of the United States, 1992–2017

 
 

“… at least since the 1980s, [the federal statistical agencies] have been struggling to garner the recognition and tangible support … they merit and the nation needs.”
               -Constance Citro, Senior Scholar and former Director, Committee on National
                   Statistics, National Academies

 
 

“Even as their importance has increased over the centuries, federal statistical agencies have been neglected, lost important autonomy and statutory protections, and been pushed deeper into the federal bureaucracy. Several agencies have experienced threats to the integrity of key data sets and to their ability to carry out their basic function.”
               -March 2021 assessment by several leaders of the federal statistical community

 
What's at risk in the US data infrastructure?
  • The USDA Economic Research Service, which has more than 100 staff vacancies (as of spring 2021) after a surprise relocation from Washington, DC, to Kansas City in 2019.
  • The Bureau of Justice Statistics, whose reports and data releases have been significantly delayed in recent years.
  • The National Center for Education Statistics, which had to cut back programs in 2019 because of a shrinking budget and the lowest staff-per-budget level of all the statistical agencies.
  • The Bureau of Transportation Statistics, whose budget has shrunk so dramatically since 2003 that it has lost more than 37 percent of its purchasing power and faces a serious shortage of staff.
  • The 2020 Census also encountered several high-profile controversies in recent years, including a widely challenged late attempt to add a citizenship question and an abbreviated and changing data collection deadline.
What the data infrastructure does

The federal data infrastructure is the informational system bedrock that supports our nation. It consists of a large, decentralized network of statistical agencies, units, and programs that work together to gather, share, and report information about a variety of subjects. These include measuring the economy, counting the population, monitoring public safety, and tracking student learning. Just like our nation’s physical infrastructure, data infrastructure supports American commerce, security, and democracy.

Policymakers use federal statistics to determine representation in the US House of Representatives and state legislatures, guide more than $1.5 trillion annually in federal assistance, respond to natural disasters, and enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Private Businesses use federal statistics to decide where to place a new plant or open a new outlet and even how to stock a store. The data helps them understand commercial markets, proximity to transportation, availability of talent, population, and demographics.

Citizens use federal statistics to find a school or university, choose the best curricula for their children, inform career decisions, find a job, and even check the weather.

The backbone of the US data infrastructure is the 13 principal federal statistical agencies that deliver objective, reliable data. This data is vital, since alternative data sources such as private sector surveys and administrative data cannot guarantee the accuracy and coverage of the broader population. Federal statistics can.

Data infrastructure risk factors

The warning signs that our federal data infrastructure is vulnerable include the following:

  • Declining response rates to surveys
  • Insufficient staffing at many federal statistical agencies, including the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, and Bureau of Transportation Statistics
  • A drop in purchasing power in three quarters of the principal federal statistical agencies since the 2009 fiscal year
  • Weak protections for producing objective data, including decreased autonomy, extraneous layers of bureaucracy, and reduced vetting and stature of leadership
What the statistical experts say
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