7. Challenges and strategies for effecting paradigm change

Constance F. Citro


I have argued for a paradigm change in which statistical agencies design and update their flagship programs by determining the best combination of data sources and methods to serve user needs in a topic area of ongoing importance. I use U.S. household surveys as an example, where the evidence is strong that relying on survey responses alone will not suffice to serve critical needs for high-quality information on income, expenditures, and related subjects. I expect it is also true that the use of administrative records alone, as in some countries with detailed population registers, may not provide sufficiently complete and high-quality information in the absence of regular efforts to review the quality of the register data and augment and correct them with information from other sources, such as surveys. As a case in point, Axelson, Homberg, Jansson, Werner and Westling (2012) describe the utility of surveys for evaluating the quality of housing and household data from a new dwelling register that was constructed for the 2011 census in Sweden.

I close by listing factors that make paradigm change difficult, countered by ways to effect the change I recommend and ingrain it in statistical agency culture. The U.S. and other statistical systems have admirable records of innovation in many aspects of their programs, but changing paradigms is always difficult, as was evident in the battle to introduce probability sampling to official U.S. statistics in the 1930s. It is particularly hard to rethink long-lived, ongoing, statistical programs with which both the producer agency and the user base are comfortable.

Factors that can impede change include: (1) inertia, particularly when a program was originally innovative and very well designed, so it can coast on its earlier success; (2) becoming out of touch with stakeholders’ changing needs, which can be exacerbated when an agency views itself as the only source of needed data and not in competition; (3) fear of undercutting existing programs combined with fear of “not-invented here”; (4) inadequate ongoing evaluation of data quality in all of its dimensions; and (5) constrained staff and budget resources, coupled with an understandable reluctance of agency staff or their established user base to cut back on one or another long-standing statistical series in order to make important advances in other series.

Yet there are many outstanding examples of important innovation in U.S. and other nation’s statistical agencies, so clearly there are ways to overcome the constraints listed above to effect paradigm change. The essential ingredient for paradigm change, I believe, is leadership buy-in and continued support at the top of a statistical agency, proactively deployed to garner buy-in at all levels of the agency. For an outstanding example of such leadership, see the discussion in National Research Council (2010a) of the role of Morris Hansen and his colleagues in reengineering what had been an enumerator-based census into a mailout/mailback census. The reengineering effort was initiated and sustained on the basis of evidence of substantial interviewer bias and variance for important data items. There was also concern that it could become more difficult to recruit enumerators as women moved into the work force.

Specific steps for agency leadership to get behind for the specific purpose of inculcating the use of multiple data sources for ongoing official statistical programs include (see Prell, Bradsher-Fredrick, Comisarow, Cornman, Cox, Denbaly, Martinez, Sabol and Vile (2009), who conducted case studies of successful statistical uses of administrative records in the United States, for similar conclusions): (1) setting clear expectations and goals for staff, such as the expectation that statistical programs will, as a matter of course, combine such sources as surveys and administrative records in the interests of relevant, accurate and timely data produced cost-effectively and with minimal respondent burden; (2) according a prominent role to subject-matter specialists - to interface with outside users and inside data producers; (3) staffing operational programs with expertise in all relevant data sources, which includes putting specialists in survey design and specialists in administrative records or other data sources on an equal footing; (4) providing for rotation of assignments, including internal rotations, rotations among statistical agencies, rotations with data user organizations and rotations with sources of alternative data sources; (5) carving out resources for continued evaluation; and (6) treating organizations with alternative data sources that play important roles in statistical programs as partners. On this last point, see, e.g., Hendriks (2012, p. 1473), who, in discussing the experiences of Statistics Norway with their first register-based census in 2011, stresses that “The three C’s of register based statistics (in order to achieve data quality) are Co-operation, Communication and Coordination.”

Statistical agencies have shown the ability to make far-reaching changes in response to threats to established ways of doing business. The second half of the 20th century gave us the probability survey paradigm in response to the increasing costs and burden of conducting full enumerations and the flaws of non-probability designs. The 21st century can surely give us the paradigm of using the best source(s), including surveys, administrative records and other sources, to respond to policy and public needs for relevant, accurate, timely and cost-effective official statistics.


This paper is based on the author’s years of experience at the Committee on National Statistics, but the views expressed are her own and should not be assumed to represent the views of CNSTAT or the National Academy of Sciences. The author thanks John Czajka, David Johnson and Rochelle Martinez for helpful comments on an earlier draft. A longer version of this paper is available from the author on request.


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