Read these other recent postings on this subject:
Something has been happening in DC that has gone almost unnoticed in the mainstream press – the gutting of American statistical agencies.
On Wednesday, May 9, the House voted to eliminate the American Community Survey (ACS). This comes just a week after the House Committee on Appropriations recommended $20 million in cuts to the 2012 Economic Census. These are two concrete examples of proposals or actual cuts to a variety of statistical programs across government. While there is speculation that these cuts will not be put into law (as they need to get through the Senate as well), these votes and proposals show a dangerous trend in sentiment that too many constituencies who value the data produced are unaware.
As covered well in an article from Business Week, seemingly the only outlet tuned in here, businesses rely heavily on much of the data being discussed for elimination. The American Community Survey was a pioneering effort when it was put in place a decade ago and is now our main avenue of estimating current trends in our population. It is the ultimate public good in that these data are best collected by government sources (governments around the world do similar things) and then fed back to households and businesses in a variety of ways. These data would be more expensive, less reliable, and ultimately only available to a few if the government was not the one collecting them.
As was suggested in the Business Week article, why don’t other groups band together to fund these types data, such as Chambers of Commerce or even private foundations? It is a fair question, but one more appropriate for smaller types of activities. There are no institutions in place, other than the government, to allow the scale of cooperation necessary to to collect data of this scale, quality, and public-use. While we have been amongst the most prominent advocates for good data in the last decade and a funder of some data extensions (see recent Business Dynamics Series report, for example), the cuts being discussed would be inefficient, devastating to the economy, and unable to be replaced by efforts from the private sector. More efficiency is needed at statistical agencies, but efficiency will not be found in trying to manage data collections that are already in the field (with the Economic Census, for example) with completely uncertain budgets.
These types of political discussions can kill innovation. Cuts can be managed and completed in such a way as to encourage innovation, see the good work of Robert Groves at the Census Bureau for practical examples, or cuts can be like this – indiscriminant attempts at hacking away at organizations with very diverse but muted constituencies that push organizations into a tailspin, afraid to commit to anything, afraid of collaborating, and afraid of changing and improving themselves.
Recent years have been good for most of the statistical agencies in trying to revive a sense that they were good places to work, with exciting potential to do good, innovative things. I have seen this with the agencies being more successful in hiring talented economists to fill vacancies in their ranks. Many of these new folks have been specifically hired to put in place new and exciting data products that can provide new types of information to local, regional, and national customers. For example, forthcoming new data publications from the Census Bureau tracking flows of people into and out of self-employment, unemployment, and other types of work at the local level should be incredibly valuable for anyone wanting to understand the local dynamics of their economies. I saw much of this innovation at an event we sponsored in Washington, DC, last Monday and Tuesday at George Washington University. There, more than 50 data producers, many of them from the government, were on hand to talk about new and innovative ways in which customers could make use of their data in regional economic analysis. This event was overrun with people. First estimates at attendance were about 100, but by the end more than 300 participants packed the two days of discussions.
Now is not the time to slash and burn our national statistical infrastructure. Indeed, I would argue that we need these statistics now more than ever if we want to know about our economy in a more timely manner. And for all the private surveys and data publication that might be out there, few of them would be possible without the backbone of information that comes from our statistical agencies. We can push to be more efficient. We can push to be more innovative. We can do better. What has happened in Washington in the last few days isn’t doing any of those things.