by Sidney Shapiro, July 2009
|How should the government ensure the quality of scientific and statistical information that agencies disseminate?|
Federal agencies increasingly are seeking to fulfill their statutory missions by disseminating information, particularly through the Internet, about the entities, products and topics within their purview. Programs like the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), an annual, national compilation of chemical releases issued by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), create political and economic pressure on firms to improve their performance, such as by reducing toxic exposures beyond the amounts required by existing regulations. Other programs empower individuals to alter their market activity in a manner that reduces their risk. The crash worthiness ratings issued by the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) illustrate this potential. More broadly, information disclosure satisfies the public’s right to know about potential hazards.
In 2001, Congress passed a two-paragraph provision buried in an appropriations bill that requires agencies to ensure and maximize the quality of information that they disseminate and to establish an error correction process. Congress also gave the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) the power to issue guidelines to agencies about how to implement the requirement. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) sponsored the rider without legislative hearings, committee review, or debate. Representative Emerson reportedly acted at the behest of Jim Tozzi, a former OMB-official who runs the corporate sponsored Center for Regulatory Effectiveness. As far as can be determined, few, if any, other members of Congress knew of the appropriations rider at the time they voted for it. In February 2002, OMB issued instructions telling agencies how to implement the legislation. After seeking public input, agencies adopted permanent procedures to implement the rider in October 2002.
What People are Fighting About
Although some companies and industry-related groups tried this tactic, the IQA has not turned into the anti-regulatory tool that was originally anticipated. For one thing, the Bush Administration was so friendly to industry preferences that the IQA turned out to be largely unnecessary for companies or trade associations to gain their objectives. Further, the courts have held that an agency’s disposition of an IQA complaint is not judicially reviewable. This means a company or industry group cannot ask the courts to overturn an agency when it rejects a complaint that data is not reliable. Thus, the Obama administration can reject any such complaints, assuming that they are unwarranted, without fear of being overruled by the courts.
What’s At Stake?
|Should OMB be responsible for establishing information quality procedures for federal agencies?|
Although the IQA did not unleash a torrent of data quality complaints, the impact of the legislation has not been entirely benign. OMB used the rider as authority to adopt peer review guidelines in 2004 and to propose risk assessment guidelines in 2007. The peer review guidelines were rewritten by OMB after it received extensive criticism from the scientific community. Although there was less opposition to the final version of the guidelines, the guidelines remain problematic. The proposed risk assessment guidelines were withdrawn after they were criticized by a committee of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences as too flawed to be repairable.
The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences has indicated that “there is room for improvement in risk assessment practices” in the federal government, but the committee also recommended that “OMB should limit its efforts to stating goals and general principles of risk assessment.” The committee based its recommendations on the lack of expertise at OMB to improve risk assessment in the government: “The details should be left to the agencies or expert committees appointed by the agencies, wherein lies the depth of expertise to address the issues relevant to the specific types of risk assessments.”
Decisions on the Table
-- What role should agencies play in ensuring the quality of scientific and statistical information?
Second, if the White House seeks to harmonize how agencies compile and disseminate scientific and statistical information, it should require agencies that use common types of information to meet and jointly agree on common ways of improving information quality. The new methods should be written by scientific experts at their respective agencies, and they should be subject to peer review by scientific advisory committees from which agencies routinely seek expert advice. The White House’s role should be limited to convening inter-agency committees and to ensuring that agencies have non-arbitrary reasons for maintaining existing approaches or for making changes.