Informing government decision makers through research & industry insights.

Agencies' Data Reporting Practices Reduce Accuracy of Official Stats

flickr user Eric Fischer

Quartz recently reported that the $33 billion deal made at the Africa Summit last week might not go as far as its investors would like, largely due to the “terrible state of statistical reporting in most of Africa.” The article cites Nigeria’s sudden leap in GDP, which allowed the country to replace South Africa as the continent’s largest economy, as evidence of “sketchy” data reporting. A recent working paper from the Center for Global Development explains the two incentive structures that may cause aid recipients to report data incorrectly. Front-line service providers sometimes overstate their progress to governments, as in the case of primary education programs funded with per-pupil grants. Similarly, governments may themselves also misrepresent findings to foreign donors, for example when continued funding is proportional to reported vaccination rates.

Particularly during budget negotiations, suspicion of waste and corruption in foreign assistance programs is a popular theme in the United States, but this country has long had a broader problem with statistical error reporting that may affect all departments and agencies. In a draft of his upcoming paper, Professor Charles Manski addresses the lack of progress in agencies’ statistical reporting accuracy since the incendiary 1963 work by Oskar Morgenstern, the economist most remembered for contributing to the development of game theory. Manski demonstrates that federal data is overwhelmingly represented by point estimates, while nonsampling error remains unquantified in federal employment and income data, significantly reducing its utility to researchers and interested citizens. A paper in the Journal of Official Statistics agrees: “data quality information that users need is not always made available and is not consistently reported across agencies.”

The possibility of error does not necessarily go unmentioned: Manski identifies several examples of acknowledgment, including addendums to an employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and to the Census Bureau’s annual Current Population Report. Critically, the magnitudes of error are not provided.

Economists have established statistical principles for dealing with sampling error, but there is currently no universal standard for measuring the various forms of nonsampling error. Manski explains that representing unemployment, for instance, as a quarterly point estimate allows policy analysts to make conclusions with “incredible certitude” where it simply does not exist. When agencies continue to omit magnitudes of error, some users “may naively assume that errors are small and inconsequential,” while those who “understand that statistics are subject to error must fend for themselves and conjecture the error magnitudes.” Echoing the example of Nigeria’s artificial GDP explosion, Manski writes that failure to report error in this country could allow a “central bank monitoring statistics on GDP growth, inflation, and employment [to] misevaluate the status of the economy and consequently set inappropriate monetary policy.”

It appears that not only can the government not play moneyball due to a scarcity of data, but that those who try may be misinformed by the data that does exist. Morgenstern may have said it best more than fifty years ago, when he called for the President's Council of Economic Advisors, Federal Reserve Board, and other public and private agencies to stop presenting to the public “economic statistics as if these were free from is for the economists to reject and criticize such statements which are devoid of all scientific value, but it is even more important for them not to participate in their fabrication."


This post is written by Government Business Council; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Government Executive Media Group's editorial staff. For more information, see our advertising guidelines.


Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.