Regulating the Flow of Data: OMB and the Control of Government Information

Article excerpt

The United States government collects, analyzes, and disseminates a wide variety of information that is important and useful for decision makers in both the public and private sectors. Information that is accurate, timely, and relatively comprehensive can enhance the quality of decisions, while its absence, inadequacy or inaccuracy can cripple or diminish the capacity for intelligent decision making. This article is concerned with the information policy of the U. S. government, and particularly with the role that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the Reagan administration played in shaping and implementing that policy. In particular, I focus on the effect OMB's efforts have had on Centralized Statistical Agencies (CESTAs). I argue that OMB tried to shrink the role of the federal government in data collection and dissemination and discuss the consequences of these efforts.(1) I conclude with a suggestion that more attention should be paid to the public-goods nature of information when considering the role of government in data collection and dissemination.

I focus on CESTAs because they are not directly involved in the administration of regulatory or welfare programs. The goals of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) illustrate the purposes of CESTAs:

The Bureau strives to have its data satisfy a number of

criteria, including relevance to current social and economic

issues, timeliness in reflecting today's rapidly

changing economic conditions, accuracy and consistently

high statistical quality, and impartiality in both

subject matter and presentation (Office of Federal Register,

1989a, p. 425).

A list of the eight major agencies in CESTAs and the type of data they collect is in the grey box on page 435. A more complete discussion of the political environments of four CESTAs is provided by Morin (1989).

Government information is a valuable resource in policy implementation. For example, in fiscal year 1979, "150 domestic assistance programs in 18 departments and agencies" relied on statistical data to allocate their funds (Emery, Campbell, and Freedman, 1980, p. 74). Under these programs, $122 billion were allocated in fiscal year 1979 (p. 74), of which 15 "had obligations in excess of $1 billion [each] ..." (p. 75).

Because many decisions depend on government information, and because its collection is often time consuming and intrusive, many actors attempt to influence the manner in which CESTAs generate information. For example, data users, data providers, and a variety of organizations have a concern about or try to influence the manner in which the Energy Information Administration (EIA) carries out its responsibilities. EIA's first administrator supported a growing EIA. During the Reagan administration, EIA administrators had a somewhat different view, clearly illustrated by EIA'S continual effort to rid the agency of one of its most controversial forms (Morin, 1989, chapter 5).

One of the most important actors in the process of generating government information is OMB, which exerts an influence on the flow of information and statistical data through four interrelated means. The first involves its philosophy of, and role in, information collection. The second relates to its well-known budgetary responsibilities. The third involves the forms approval process, through which forms used by agencies to collect information must pass before they can be used. Finally, OMB basically controls the Information Collection Budget, which regulates the amount of time it takes a respondent to complete a form of the federal government.

OMB's Philosophy of Government's Role in Data Collection

It is important to note that in carrying out its duties for the development and implementation of information and statistical policy, OMB was underscoring and more aggressively pursuing a direction that the federal government had been following for decades. …