Data quality politics

The data quality guidelines that federal agencies have been publishing are a double-edged sword.

The agencies are publishing the guidelines because of a harmless-looking amendment to a 2001 appropriations bill requiring the Office of Management and Budget to issue directives "for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by federal agencies." Each agency, in turn, must issue the data quality guidelines they will hold themselves to.

On one edge: Who can argue with data quality? Of course, agencies should have policies and procedures that ensure the information they give to the public is accurate, objective and useful. Every federal agency should check and recheck any data published officially under its name for those qualities before the data's release.

This is motherhood and apple pie — standard quality assurance practice in any modern enterprise. No respectable critic can argue for the removal or absence of data quality standards.

The sword's other edge is the troublesome aspect of data quality that reveals the political agenda behind the guidelines.

Each agency must also create administrative grievance processes for addressing any data quality complaints from the public. Regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency issue rules based in part on data from scientific studies. The data quality guidelines give those opposed to such rules a monkey wrench that they can toss into the federal rule-making machinery.

If a proposed rule affects an industry in a way the industry does not like — makes the industry spend money cleaning up pollution, for example — the guidelines are a devilishly respectable device for challenging the rule. The affected industry can challenge the quality of the data supporting the rule and conceivably drag out final regulatory adoption for months or years.

Time is money. Businesses that complain about the slowness of government sometimes have a vested interest in slowing down government action. When a business can delay government regulatory action for some years, the postponement may have bottom-line payoff.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said the potential impact of the data quality guidelines could go far beyond what most people imagine. The brainchild of former Office of Management and Budget officials who are politically conservative and pro-business, the data quality guidelines have only just begun to haunt federal regulatory agencies.

If you want a glimpse of the guidelines' future political use, check out the Web site of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness ( Already, the organization has filed notice of its intent to sue the Energy Department for not publishing data quality guidelines.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]


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