Does big brother need better eyes

Posted: Nov 08, 2001 12:00 AM
Every day, the federal government collects information about you. The Census Bureau knows where you live. The IRS knows where you work. The Social Security Administration knows how much you earn. It also collects lots of general and administrative information. The FAA knows how many planes took off from Kennedy Airport yesterday, and the Labor Department can tell us how many people attended a recent job training program, how much it cost and how many of those people ended up getting jobs. To many of us, a lot of the data the government collects seems unimportant – but that information is critical to many researchers and government watchdogs. They want to keep the government from wasting your money. That’s why the latest set of Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidelines are worrying. OMB says the new guidelines, released Oct. 1, will ensure and maximize, “the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal agencies.” That’s a worthy goal. Whether it’s the National Weather Service issuing a forecast or the Census Bureau reporting how many people live in your hometown, it’s important for the government to release accurate information. But a major problem is that these guidelines may actually provide a back door the government can use to withhold large chunks of the data it collects. How? Simply by saying the information isn’t of sufficient quality. OMB says it, “designed the guidelines so that agencies will meet basic information quality standards….it is clear that agencies should not disseminate substantive information that does not meet a basic level of quality.” OMB leaves it up to the bureaucrats to determine what information meets that standard: “Agencies are directed to develop information resources management procedures for reviewing and substantiating (by documentation or other means selected by the agency) the quality (including the objectivity, utility, and integrity) of information before it is disseminated.” Each agency will have one year to draft its guidelines. There’s a clear conflict of interest here. If a federal bureaucrat discovers that his agency has collected information that’s embarrassing to him, or to his boss, or to the agency itself, he no longer has to release it. All he has to do is say the information isn’t of good enough quality to be released. OMB tries to prevent that conflict, by ordering the agencies to, “establish administrative mechanisms allowing affected persons to seek and obtain correction of information maintained and disseminated by the agency that does not comply with the guidelines issued” and report, “the number and nature of complaints received by the agency regarding the accuracy of information disseminated by the agency; and how such complaints were handled by the agency." That sounds good. However, it’s impossible for anyone to object to information that hasn’t been released. So while researchers will still be able to challenge the data that the government puts out, there’s going to be plenty of information they will never see, and thus never be able to challenge. Ironically, the regulations may actually allow affected parties outside the government to suppress information. If the EPA releases the results of a study that seems to prove Company X is polluting, Company X might want to prevent that information from being released. What if they challenge the data, by finding a minor error and claiming that the report doesn’t meet the EPA’s information quality standard? Would the report be corrected and re-released, or would the entire report be suppressed? Another interesting question is what is going to happen to all the “low quality” data that federal agencies collect? If it is deleted, then all the money spent collecting and compiling it was wasted. But if the information is stored somewhere, how will the agency ensure that it doesn’t get released accidentally, or leaked to a reporter? Under these regulations, the government could actually use information that nobody else would have access to. Suppose one bureaucrat determines that a statistic produced by a government agency is good enough for official (government) work, while the agency that produced the number determines that the data is “low quality.” Then, the government would be using data, but keeping the data secret by saying that their policy does not allow them to release it to the public. There would be no way for watchdog groups to challenge the data. Of course, nobody is going to argue that the federal government should pump out poor quality data. But while it’s admirable that OMB is trying to improve the quality of the information we receive, their latest guidelines may end up doing just the opposite. The agency should revise these guidelines, keeping in mind that simply decreasing the quantity of information the government releases is not the way to improve the quality of that information.
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