Department of Transportation Proposes Realignment of Bureau of Transportation Statistics

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has proposed the realignment of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) as part of it FY19 budget request. The proposed realignment would move the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology, which includes BTS, to the Office of the Under Secretary for Policy. The proposal is concerning because it would move BTS down one organizational level from the Office of the Secretary and because it would move BTS to an office explicitly centered on policy.

The organizational down-layering is troubling for several reasons, one being a potential lessening of relevance and influence of statistical data in evidence-based policymaking at DOT. A move to an explicitly policy-focused office could jeopardize the firewall between BTS and DOT policymaking that is critical for its work to be perceived as objective. The importance of this separation is made clear in both White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and National Academies’ documents. OMB Statistical Policy Directive #1 states the following:

Federal statistical agencies and recognized statistical units must function in an environment that is clearly separate and autonomous from the other administrative, regulatory, law enforcement, or policymaking activities within their respective departments.

The National Academies’ document Principles and Practices of a Federal Statistical Agency says the following.

The reason for a statistical agency to exist is to serve as a trustworthy source of objective, relevant, accurate, and timely information for decision-makers, analysts, and others—both inside and outside the government—to help them understand present conditions, draw comparisons with the past, and guide plans for the future. For these purposes, it is essential that a statistical agency be distinct from those parts of a department that carry out administrative, regulatory, law enforcement, or policymaking activities. It is also essential that a statistical agency have a widely acknowledged position of independence from political and other undue external influence in developing, producing, and disseminating statistics, together with the necessary authority to protect independence.

To its credit, before enacting the realignment, the DOT commissioned the National Academy of Public Administration to assess the organization of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology and the opportunities and challenges presented by its proposed transfer to the Office of the Under Secretary for Policy. The assessment report is expected in the next few months.

The BTS, a principle statistical agency with a FY19 budget of $26 million, is the pre-eminent source of objective information about the nation’s varied modes of transportation such as rail, freight, and commercial air for researchers, policymakers, and the public.

The American Statistical Association is closely monitoring the proposed realignment and supports a strong, objective BTS to promote evidence-based transportation policymaking.