The Office of Management and Budget’s Chief Statistician, Nancy Potok, recently assured the Insights Association that any government reorganization of statistical agencies involving the Census Bureau will not occur until after the 2020 Census, as we had requested.
The plan to move the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) from the Labor Department to the Department of Commerce, and to try to integrate BLS, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and Census Bureau was first announced early this summer. According to the White House plan (page 60): "The U.S. Statistical System is composed of 13 principal statistical agencies across the Federal Government. Three of these agencies—the U.S. Census Bureau (Census), the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—account for 53 percent of the System’s annual budget of $2.26 billion, and share unique synergies in their collection of economic and demographic data and analysis of key national indicators. Reorganizing these agencies under the Department of Commerce (DOC) would increase cost-effectiveness and improve data quality, while simultaneously reducing respondent burden on businesses and the public."
The Insights Association urged, in response to the White House plan, that any reorganization involving the Census Bureau at least be delayed until after the decennial headcount.
Speaking at a COPAFS event on July 23, Potok explained that such statistical agency reorganization ideas were not new, including in other countries. As an example of current inefficiencies, Potok explained that BLS creates the business register from state data, which is different from Census’ one, which comes from tax data. It is hard to reconcile the two, she said, but they are the frame for the business and economic censuses, which end up being used by BEA to develop other measures like GDP. Potok stressed that the clash between data like that ripples throughout the statistical agencies’ work.
BLS doesn’t have authority to use tax data, but Census does. CIPSEA allowed for economic data sharing, but a companion piece of legislation to allow BLS to access IRS data didn’t happen. Bringing BLS into the Department of Commerce could get around that unnecessary restriction. Ultimately, legislation will be required to move BLS to Commerce, which would ideally include the IRS data sharing fix, along with some other data sharing improvements. Congress could amend Title 13 to give BLS and BEA the same access to IRS data as Census gets at the same time as BLS is moved under Commerce.
The House Ways & Means Committee, however, has been cold on such legislation in the past. Apparently, so many different interests want access to tax data, including for purposes of dealing with deadbeat dads, for example, that the committee has no incentive to risk opening up that section of the IRS code to any changes.
Another example of waste that Potok suggested could be reduced by integrating the statistical agencies was the “annual time-wasting effort” of Inter-agency agreements – the agreements are almost always the same, but it takes a long time to get them in place every year. If the agencies worked as a single unit, so they weren’t contracted to each other, it would smooth this problem out, she said, and allow for collaborative thinking and improvement. Potok argued that that is hard to do right now, when the data collector and the data analyzer and repository are separate.
Meanwhile, the agencies would benefit from sharing their IT resources. The BLS information technology system is particularly woeful, she suggested, but BLS has always been afraid to let the CIO at the Labor Department have control over their data, and they have coveted that independence. Sharing their management and recruiting/hiring infrastructure would also be powerful advantage. Overall, the integration OMB proposed should give the three agencies a chance to think bigger, such as considering more passive data collection from businesses and the purchase of more data from commercial sources.
Potok suggested that there are no more than a half dozen surveys that are redundant between the three agencies. Most data collection happens at Census.
There is no emergency situation demanding this agency reorganization, she said, so it is important for stakeholders to “make the case for why this is necessary now.”
Most importantly for the Insights Association’s purposes, OMB would not pursue the reorganization until the end of Fiscal Year 2020, perhaps not until the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2021, in order to avoid any disruption to the 2020 Census. This was exactly the concern we raised with both House and Senate oversight committees, so we are glad to see it resolved.
The group Friends of BLS recently highlighted four priorities to consider as part of the reorganization:
- Preserve the objectivity of BLS as an independent agency. As part of any legislation, they said, the Undersecretary of Economic Affairs should become a term position to make the position more independent, and the chief economist should be put in the office of the Commerce Secretary
- Maintain the mission, integrity and strength of BLS, because they don’t want it to get swallowed up and forgotten under the Census Bureau.
- This shouldn’t just be an efficiency measure.
- Make sure BLS continues to deliver services to congress and the Secretary of Labor that it does now.
While the integration proposal is not new, the forgotten history is that BLS and Census were once part of the same agency: 100 years ago, the Commerce and Labor Departments were one and the same.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be getting federal statistical stakeholders excited in support of the proposal; people want federal data, but don’t get passionate about it.
At the moment, BLS is neutral on the proposal. Census Bureau people are focused on 2020, Potok said: “they’re busy.”
While this reorganization proposal would normally be called “streamlining,” OMB avoided that term because it scares BLS supporters that BLS is getting eliminated. Potok prefers the more descriptive but mundane title: “Reshaping Economic Statistics for the 21st Century.”