Meet the new Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioner

May 22, 2013
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP-Getty)
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP-Getty)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), within the Department of Labor, provides regular reports on the nation’s unemployment, inflation, consumer prices and other economic activity. Erica L. Groshen, the commissioner of labor statistics since January and a former vice president of the Research and Statistics Group at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, spoke about the agency and her goals for the future. She was interviewed by Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Why is the work of the BLS so important?

Data are a public good like roads and the police force. Data improves our daily lives all the time. Policymakers, businesses and households depend on data to make informed decisions and discourse. Without this information that we all rely on—almost without knowing it—we'd be operating and arguing in the dark. BLS is a world-class statistical agency because of the talented and dedicated staff that comes to work every day. You’ll never meet another group of more professional and talented data nerds in your life. They do great work.

Is sequestration affecting BLS?

Big time. My first day on the job, I had to review the agency sequester plan. BLS is a production operation and the public depends on our data. We can’t just say that we won’t put out June’s unemployment rate, for example. We produce many long-term data series with very short turnaround, but the main thing we have done according to our sequestration plan is eliminate three programs: Measuring Green Jobs, International Labor Comparisons and Mass Layoff Statistics. We are also delaying maintenance, postponing training and slowing down needed improvements.

Although we think we’ve protected our remaining products enough, the belt tightening will affect the quality of our outputs. We just don't know how much yet. When our workers are less trained than we had planned, there's going to be a consequence. I think we can make up for this training gap next year, but we wouldn’t be able to do so if we hadn’t eliminated three programs. We're working very hard to do more with less, but if funding continues at the present level, we will certainly have to cut more programs.

What are some of the leadership lessons you learned while working at the Federal Reserve Bank?

I learned the importance of exchanging ideas with many audiences. It’s important to seek diverse audiences and make it a two-way conversation. We need to expand our ideas broadly and listen carefully to the responses, so that our products remain relevant and accessible. Since joining BLS in January, I’ve been meeting with internal and external stakeholders and obtaining their assessment of BLS and talking in depth to past and current leaders to get their insights. I have also started touring all our regional offices to gather information to help set our priorities.

What are some of your goals for the BLS?

We must maintain and improve the quality of our data and our operations in this challenging budgetary environment. There also are many issues we are thinking about, including how to collect data in the globalized market, using BLS statistical definitions. We need to provide tools that will allow BLS to measure and compare international competitiveness and maybe update the industrial classification system.

Another big topic is the advent of big data, which are collections of data sets that are so large and complex that they are difficult to process through traditional statistical methods. These data are collected for non-statistical purposes, but then analyzed by private business and academia. We can learn a lot from these efforts and should certainly take advantage of the right opportunities to combine some of this information with ours to broaden our understanding and coverage of the labor market.

What are some of your management challenges?

We operate continually at a crossroads between business, government and households. Great things can be accomplished when you bring together folks who don’t always talk to each other and get them to exchange ideas. That's part of what makes BLS really creative, but it is also difficult juggling and integrating so many stakeholders and sources of information. Another challenge is getting our information to the people who need it in a way that they can find it.  One of our new efforts to reach out is our Twitter account (@BLS_gov), which has been growing by leaps and bounds.

Are there other ways that BLS is evolving?

We have many different efforts underway to improve our data, operations and communication—and they are often linked. For example, we care a lot about maintaining high response rates and lowering the respondent burden. Technology has given us many new ways to collect the information and be as flexible as possible by allowing people to respond by email, over the Internet or by phone. These improvements have required reorganizing some of our data collection modes. We also need to find more ways to honor and thank our respondents. The information gathered from households and businesses allows people across the country to make better decisions and have better discourse. So, respondents are performing a huge public service of benefit to all Americans and they deserve recognition.

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