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The modern economy has never been more reliant on data. Businesses, governments, and families must navigate the complexities of a world made possible by new technologies and innovative business practices. Without reliable information about the economic and social environment, it is impossible in many instances to make sensible choices. For example, when deciding where to locate distribution centers, stores, and warehouses, the American Community Survey’s (ACS’s) accurate local data have proven invaluable to retailers (Kleinhenz 2015). Researchers know significantly more about the impact of prowork policy reforms in the 1990s due to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)— and are better prepared to advise policy makers on future reforms. Addressing fundamental questions important to families, the ACS aids prospective students in making better college and career choices. Our founding fathers recognized the value of data. James Madison observed that information on agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests would enable any legislature to represent the interests of its citizens more effectively. Madison pointed out that this kind of information had never been obtained in any country, and that it would enable the United States to grow (Hutchinson and Rachal 1963).
The federal government has therefore always played a vital role in developing the data that Americans rely on to make well-informed decisions. As mandated in the Constitution, the U.S. Census Bureau enumerates the U.S. population, periodically adjusting congressional and state legislative districts to reflect the changing population distribution. In this respect and in many others, data are often key to the functioning of our republic. Data are required for the proper exercise of citizenship and for holding public officials accountable.
Without accurate information regarding the state of the economy and the effects of public policy, citizens would be unable to make fully informed choices about elected officials and to demand that the government reflects their priorities.
Today the decennial census is just one of the useful statistical products made freely available to the public. In areas ranging from the rural economy to energy markets to the labor market, among many others, federal statistical agencies make valuable contributions to the public good of increased knowledge and understanding. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics alone received 36.8 million web page views monthly in 2013 (BLS 2013).
Importantly, the public benefits of statistical reporting come at a relatively small cost. The principal statistical agencies spend only about 0.18 percent of the federal budget (Figure A).
This is slightly lower than its 2004 level (OMB 2004; 2016). Given the increasing importance of data to the modern economy, the additional opportunities to collect and analyze new information, and the need for informed policy making, it is striking that this aggregate cost has remained such a small share of the federal budget. Over the years, the federal statistical agencies have refined a set of practices that ensure the quality and impartiality of its statistical reporting. Because the reports are of such value to the private sector and the public at large, financial markets carefully scrutinize them, reacting quickly to many of the releases. This makes it especially vital that the statistical reports are generated and published in an impartial fashion that puts every user of the data on an equal footing.
To this end, government data are closely scrutinized by nonpolitical, career employees on a “need-to-know” basis, with individual employees often focusing on an isolated part of
the process and unaware of the overall statistical result (Malone 2016; OMB 2000, Circular No. A-130). Government agencies also provide source data for outside experts to review and comment on their methodology (Bureau of Economic Analysis [BEA] 2016a). In the case of the BEA, political appointees have very limited access to the data until after journalists receive them—one hour before the estimates are made public— further ensuring the impartiality of the process (BEA 2016b).
Objective, impartial data collection by federal statistical agencies is vital to informing decisions made by businesses, policy makers, and families. These measurements make it possible to have a productive discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of particular policies, and about the state of the economy. This document demonstrates a portion of the breadth and importance of government statistics to public policy and the economy.
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