Written by: Director Robert Groves
Federal statistical agencies face a set of common problems about which I’ve blogged in the past (The Future of Producing Social and Economic Statistical Information, Part I) — declining response rates producing cost inflation, meeting the demand for more timely statistics on smaller and smaller groups, harnessing new technologies, integrating new data sources into traditional survey statistical processes, and doing this all with declining budgets. I’m convinced that the talent among the Census Bureau staff and its partners is up to the task of transforming the organization to meet future challenges.
However, not all challenges are technical or scientific. One is ubiquitous to many common-good functions in a society – we take for granted essential facilitators of our day-to-day lives. We count on electricity to power our electronic devices; we rely on clean water coming from our faucets at home; we assume our telephone calls will go through when we make them; we expect the bridges we drive over will support our cars.
These features of our lives are so central to our daily routines that we have trouble assigning a value to them. Without them, our lives would be incomparable to our current ones. What’s it worth to you to have clean water? If the bridge didn’t exist, what would you be willing to spend to build it? How central to our lives are these common good features? Indeed, could we live without them, as a cost-saving strategy?
I have a cousin raised in an urban area who in her youth answered the question of “Where do peas come from?” She said, “Peas come from the can my mother opens in the kitchen.” She was correct, of course, but ignorant about the ultimate source of the vegetables, the farmer’s field.
Statistical information is a bit like that. Every day we see in the paper statistical information purporting to describe our world. To many people, that paper is the can of peas. The media provided the information. The faucet produced the clean water. The outlet produced the electricity.
One of the key challenges to statistical agencies is to communicate their benefits to the larger society. However, to fulfill the challenge, they need to describe a long chain of events. The chain begins with residents of the society, who give freely their answers to surveys and censuses trusting in a pledge of confidentiality. It ends with them using statistical aggregates of all those answers, to make important personal, community, and national decisions. The statistical agency starts the whole chain of events, but there are many independent intermediaries. If you don’t know the chain, you may misjudge the value of different steps in the chain.
When people understand the chain and appreciate the statistical information it produces, better informed judgments are made about the value of agencies to the society. Clear, plain English, simple explanations of the data-to-statistics chain are a continual challenge. We all need to do our part.
Note: This will be the last blog I write as Census Bureau director. I have been honored to serve as director, and I hope future appointments for this position will be made from among scientists who are committed to technical innovations in the production of statistical information. The Census Bureau must be a scientific organization to fulfill its mission because science is devoted to innovation and continuous improvement.