Counting the Numbers – Alleged Falsification of US Employment Data

For the Report of the Week is it hard to go past that released by the United States Department of Commerce Office of the Inspector General.

Who has not sat before a report with numbers that appear to be too good to be true or that have been manipulated for a particular partisan purpose?

This is how you investigate such a circumstance.

Firstly the context of the review:

On October 30, 2013, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) received information from Complainant, a U.S. Census Bureau employee, through a web hotline complaint. Complainant alleged that the Census Bureau’s Philadelphia Regional Office falsified data on the American Housing Survey (AHS) and the Current Population Survey (CPS). Several weeks later, on November 18, 2013, media reports alleged that the Philadelphia Regional Office had “faked” the national unemployment survey (i.e., CPS) in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election in order to artificially decrease the unemployment rate.

The summary of their findings set the scene for their analysis.  They found:

OIG thoroughly investigated these allegations, and found no evidence that management in the Philadelphia Regional Office instructed staff to falsify data at any time for any reason. Further, we found no evidence of systemic data falsification in the Philadelphia Regional Office.

We do particularly like the comment:

we found no evidence that the national unemployment rate was manipulated by staff in the Philadelphia Regional Office in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election. To accomplish this, our analysis concluded that it would have taken 78 Census Bureau Field Representatives working together, in a coordinated way, to report each and every unemployed person included in their sample as “employed” or “not in labor force” during September 2012,

So what can we take from this review:

  • quality assurance process in place creates the potential for conflicts of interest because the same supervisors who manage staff (and could direct the falsification of survey data) are responsible for reporting instances when their staff falsifies data.
  • procedural manuals and training materials are outdated, inconsistent, and do not discuss prohibitions and serious consequences for falsifying survey data.
  • employees suspected of falsifying data are sometimes allowed to continue working while their surveys are being examined,

It is interesting that whilst the facts of the case did not support the allegation, it was possible that the above mentioned concern regrading conflict of interest shows that the situation could have happened.

One thing that may need to be improved is the protection of the anonymity of a complainant (if indeed anonymity was requested).  It surely wouldn’t be too hard for a reader of the report to identify who was blowing the whistle when a statement such as this is included:

Key Witness was a Field Representative in Washington, DC, which is part of the Philadelphia Regional Office.107 Complainant is a Senior Field Representative in the Washington, DC metro region.

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