The Credibility of Government Statistics; Trust in their Source

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

One of the issues I think about a lot these days is maximizing the credibility of statistical information that we provide to the United States.

That statistical information is a key feedback loop for the American public. Our estimates describe almost every aspect of our lives – income and educational attainment, retail and wholesale sales, occupational distributions in small communities, foreign trade flows, and changes in job distributions. They allow the citizenry to assess how things are going and to evaluate actions of the government that may affect their well-being. If the Census Bureau statistics are not believed, if they’re not found to be credible, we have failed.

We go through many steps to assure that the statistics we produce are of the highest quality given our resources. Our success at that depends on the professionalism and technical skills of our staff. In short, we believe that to be found credible our statistical information must be sound statistically.

The credibility of our statistics, however, relies on more than just their technical qualities. We have to be transparent in describing our methods. To be credible we must describe both the strengths and weaknesses of our statistics. In a world filled with advertising that only describes the strengths of products and not their weaknesses, this is an unusual activity. However, this is important for us to do. None of the statistics that we deliver are perfect; we know that. So we tell users about their imperfections so that they can take those into account. By being completely honest about our data products, we hope to win the trust of the users and enhance the credibility of our statistics.

A challenge in solely using transparency to enhance the credibility of our data products is that our statistical information is often delivered by a set of intermediaries – print, digital, and video journalists. The time-constrained environment of the 24/7 news world usually doesn’t permit their going beyond reporting only the numbers themselves.

Since many people learn of our estimates from intermediaries, without detailed descriptions of how they were assembled, their reaction to our estimates is affected about whether we are viewed as a trusted source of information. Does our name connote professional, objective, nonpartisan measurement and reporting? Are we viewed as independent of whatever controversies might exist about the phenomena we’re reporting? Do we “tell it like it is?”

Informing such judgments is long term work. As current stewards of the reputation of the Census Bureau, we need to do everything we can to preserve the trust of the American public so that to them our estimates can be believed and used effectively.

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5 Responses to The Credibility of Government Statistics; Trust in their Source

  1. Valeria Falgout says:

    The employees never made contact with me. I was waiting to get a letter from US Census or an employee knocking at my door. In the end it was over before I realized it. So I never got counted. I wonder how many people that happened to also.
    Valeria F Falgout

  2. Bill says:

    I don’t think the census is accurate at all….too many people lie about who is living with them….especially illegals. Unfortunately no one wants to talk about this or come up with a way to correctly guess how many of illegals use all of the services you and I pay for….

  3. Lloyd Hefley says:

    It appears that the census takers did not make as many contacts in the rural areas as in the past. One way to check this is by counting the number of personal contacts this census vs the last one. As you have indicated there may not have enough resources to do it this time. Only you have this information which would prove your effort was the same as last time. Lloyd

  4. Karen says:
    I recently questioned a city official about their diabled population and they were not aware of any such number? Does a town, city or other receive federal dollars for certain populations? How are census numbers tested?
    I know for certain the career outlook that schools use to educate their citizen students has crippled our country big time for this era. WE are very lacking in skills to make things, tinker, think things through, creatively and abstractly think about design. We are so stuck in the industrial age of test results and focusing on the negative instead of focusing on the strengths of individuals. If an individual does not fit in the norm, they are treated poorly by thier teachers, disciplined by their parents and teased by their student community. I believe Montessori thinking is a best approach. Once a person masters something -really understands something, another step is added. When a child gravitates toward an idea or subject matter, we should encourage further exploration and expose that child to all subject matter application in that area of interest. WE should not be measuring our schools to the world outcome, we should be designing new approaches the world has not invested in yet. WE should be protecting our innovative reputation. What do you think?

  5. cindy says:

    The census doesn’t seem to be correct, in my opinion. Like others have said, they can lie. I didn’t even get a census card in the mail? I am not sure what the fix would be though. I guess they could just pull the data from drivers license?

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