Assessing the Health of the Principal Federal Statistical Agencies

The Backbone of Our Nation's Data Infrastructure

Assessing the Health of the Principal Federal Statistical Agencies

A joint American Statistical Association and George Mason University project funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

What Is the Project’s Goal?

Publish an assessment of the health of the federal statistical agencies in the first quarter of 2024 with annual updates thereafter. See also our Frequently Asked Questions.

What Is the Project’s Goal?
What Are the Challenges for the Federal Statistical Agencies?

Statistics are a key foundation of our democratic society. They provide the government and public with necessary information to make important decisions such as the following, which span the breadth of society:

  • Ensuring fair political representation and allocation of funds
  • Developing effective public and private programs in agriculture, science, health, education, and criminal justice
  • Conducting research to support policymaking
  • Improving public understanding of social and economic trends

The federal agencies that produce statistical data, however, face a growing number of threats to their professional autonomy and objectivity. These threats endanger the statistical infrastructure on which modern society is built.

What Are the Challenges for the Federal Statistical Agencies?

Several statistical agencies recently experienced threats to the integrity of key data sets (e.g., the 2020 Census) and their ability to carry out their basic functions (e.g., the abrupt relocation of US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service and subsequent loss of staff). Once threats have occurred, the federal agencies struggle to effectively address them, in part because such restorative work can be perceived as partisan if the threat was politically motivated.

What Are the Challenges for the Federal Statistical Agencies?

In addition, statistical agencies face such challenges as stagnant budgets, declining survey response rates, growing demand for more timely and granular data, and the highly dynamic environment each agency must measure and track. The survey response challenge has become so great that a 2022 report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded, “U.S. statistical agencies’ reliance on sample-survey data and census data is unsustainable.”

Offsetting the threats are the promising opportunities possible through incorporating data from administrative records and non-federal sources, as well as newly available and powerful processing tools for data linkages. Federal statistical agencies need to be agile, innovative, and able to adopt new methods and technologies to keep up with rapid changes in the wider data ecosystem and the public’s evolving needs for relevant, timely information.

What Are the Challenges for the Federal Statistical Agencies?
What Is the Project's Framework and Proposed Gap Analysis?

The statistical community maintains guidelines aimed at protecting federal statistics against many threats to objectivity and resources. These guidelines include the Statistical Policy Directives issued by the US Office of Management and Budget, National Academies' Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency, and United Nations' Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics. Yet there is no comprehensive effort to measure the extent these guidelines are met in practice and thus assess the health of the federal statistical system.

What Is the Project's Framework and Proposed Gap Analysis
What Are Potential Indicators?

Our goal is to monitor the health of the federal statistical agencies with a set of simple and transparent indicators, or “vital signs.” Candidate indicators include measures of the following:

  • Resources (e.g., budget levels, staffing, contracting, unfunded mandates)
  • Professional autonomy (view preliminary work on this topic)
  • Innovation/modernization capabilities (e.g., new products, pilot projects, staff exchanges with other agencies and academia, timeliness of data releases)
  • Workforce (e.g., employee satisfaction, professional development, recruitment and retention, diversity)
  • Host agency support for statistical agency (e.g., layers between statistical and host agency heads, initiatives in president’s budget request)
  • Data use and user engagement (e.g., transparency, dedicated advisory committee, customer satisfaction, data access modes, and timeliness and usability of data products)
What Are Some Potential Indicators?
What Is Our Proposed Work Plan?

Our assessment will rely on publicly available information, supplemented by information provided by the statistical agencies through structured inquiries. We will identify data sources, consult widely with the agencies and others about suitable metrics, develop a first suite of metrics and review them in a public workshop in fall 2023, and publish the first annual report on the health of federal statistics in early 2024. We hope these reports will raise awareness of the value of federal statistics and the need for a strong federal statistical system.

What Is Our Proposed Work Plan
The Principal Federal Statistical Agencies
Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS)
Economic Research Service (ERS)
Energy Information Administration (EIA)
Internal Revenue Service Statistics of Income Division (SOI)
National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS)
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES)
Social Security Administration Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics (ORES)
US Census Bureau

On November 6, 2023 on the Arlington campus of George Mason University, we hosted a workshop, Assessing the Health of the Federal Statistical Agencies, to lay the foundation for the criteria to be used, the collection of information to inform the evaluation of the criteria, and the methods to be used to generate an objective assessment of the health of the federal statistical agencies. View the workshop agenda.


Assessing the Health of the Federal Statistical Agencies: A Workshop

Connect with Us

Project Members

Steve Pierson, American Statistical Association

Jonathan Auerbach, George Mason University

Claire McKay Bowen, Urban Institute

Constance Citro, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Nancy Potok, NAPx Consulting

May Aydin, NCSES

Zach Seeskin, NORC

Scientific Advisory Board Members


Steve Pierson, [email protected]


The inaugural report, The Nation’s Data at Risk: Meeting America’s Information Needs for the 21st Century has been released; press release. View the July 9 webinar recording and slides.

Frequently Asked Questions

Bolstering Education Statistics to Serve the Nation, Statistics and Public Policy, November 17, 2023.

Sign up for project updates and to contribute:

The project is slated to run through January 31, 2025. Please check back periodically.