Bill would merge statistical bureaus

The House is moving ahead with plans to consolidate the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis into a new independent Federal Statistics Service, although the move is opposed by the administration.

The proposal, introduced by Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) in October last year, aims to eliminate duplicative functions, improve the quality of statistics and reduce costs.

"The increasingly interconnected nature of major economic and social issues far exceeds the bounds of any single agency's work program," Horn said at a recent hearing before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee's Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee. "The information needs of Congress and the president transcend the data and statistics compiled by any statistical agency," he added.

While there is no language in the bill that refers to linking computer systems, the goal of a single service is to have all information systems interoperate so they can easily share data, according to a staff member familiar with the bill.

Although the administration is resisting the reorganization of the three agencies, according to a committee staff member, there is a broad agreement on the need for better data sharing. However, the bill does not do anything to change the current legislation that prevents statistical data sharing among agencies.

The committee will try to mark up the bill and get it to the House floor this year, the staff member said, adding that there appears to be enough votes for passage.

Census director Martha Farnsworth Riche took issue with provisions in the bill that would separate the budget and functions for the decennial censuses programs from the rest of the bureau and combine the bureau field offices with the field offices of BLS.

"These two provisions...would make it less likely that we will have a successful 2000 census and would undermine other strategic goals of the Census Bureau," Riche said. "Functional segregation would not allow us to utilize common systems and knowledgeable staff effectively across program areas."

Census field offices, Riche added, will be at the forefront of a massive buildup for the 2000 census. "We will need to use the experienced staff and the ongoing regional networks and linkages in our regional offices to effectively carry out the decennial census," she said. She added that any attempt to merge the BLS and Census field offices, which have different functions, would be bad for this work.

BLS field data collection programs are directed at businesses, while Census' programs emphasize households.

Katharine Abraham, commissioner of BLS, urged a "more modest solution" to the problem. "Barriers to improving the statistics...have far more to do with the limitations of our knowledge about how to measure complicated phenomena—and with the limitations imposed by declining budgets—than with any flaw in the existing structure of the statistical system," she said.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (R-N.Y.), the ranking minority member on the subcommittee, said she has not formed a final opinion about the legislation but has questions as to where the savings would come from and how much the consolidation would cost.

"I have yet to see any hard evidence that supports the changes proposed in the legislation," she said.

Sally Katzen, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, said there are problems with moving to a centralized agency. A single agency, she said, would have a "virtual monopoly on the collection and release of essentially all the government's key economic data and might be less responsive to users' needs."

And while Horn said a single service would be better able to resist political pressure to manipulate data, Katzen said this is a "non-problem." The bureaus have already demonstrated independence from political pressure, she said.

Katzen suggested making incremental changes to improve agency coordination, the quality of data and confidence in the statistical system.

OMB is required to appoint a chief statistician, and it has a central role in how statistical offices should interact.

Other provisions of the bill include:

* Setting up a federal council on statistical policy within the proposed Federal Statistics Service to advise on sharing statistical data among federal agencies and states and to formulate a governmentwide statistical policy.

* Appointing an administrator to head the service, with the directors of the three bureaus reporting to the administrator.

* Asking agencies to examine special arrangements to permit the sharing of statistical data with state agencies cooperating with federal agencies in statistical programs.

Under current law, there is limited sharing of statistical data among the bureaus.

"In a decentralized system, one disadvantage is that information cannot be shared, and [as a result] there is redundancy," said Gerald Gates, the administrative records program officer at Census. "The advantage is that it helps us encourage participation. The issues of how to share information and protect confidentiality have to be balanced."

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