The 2012 Census of Governments: Some Work, Some Knowledge

Starting soon the U.S. Census Bureau will begin posting the results of the 2012 Census of Governments for public employment.  That effort occurs every five years.  And as I have the previous three times it was undertaken, I intend to download and compile this information for state and local governments in New York City, the rest of New York State, and related areas.  Because I believe it is important that this information be made available in a way that makes fair and relevant comparisons between places possible.

No one else seems to work very much with this data.  And to me, that is a problem. Shouldn’t the compilation and publication of this information be institutionalized somehow?  Shouldn’t someone else in this city have the knowledge I have gained in 20-plus years of working with this dataset?  Therefore I once again offer, to those with the interest and ability, the opportunity to work with me in compiling this information over the next year.  If you are interested, I’m not hard to find with a little effort.  Or people could just compile the data themselves after studying the background information and spreadsheets I produced five years ago, which I have posted here.

As I have noted in the past, without place-to-place comparisons on state and local taxes, expenditures by category, public employment by category, and debts, those concerned with state and local policy are always comparing this year’s spending and taxes with last year’s spending and taxes, for New York City and State in isolation.  That’s a comparison with an ideology – the winners and losers in New York’s governmental priorities should be fixed in place forever.  Comparisons with other places, and with the national average, provide an alternative viewpoint.  Just because it’s the national average does not make it right, because different places have different needs and characteristics.  But large differences, in either direction, should be explained and justified rather than just continued by the divine right of those who come out ahead.

Fair-minded comparisons take a little work, to adjust for population, income and the cost of living, the structure of local government and the distribution of state and local responsibilities.  In some cases other data sources must be used to allocate and interpolate the data the Bureau provides, particularly for local governments that cross county lines.  And some comparisons cannot be made fairly because of the structure of local government.  Generally, data on local governments can only be analyzed for entire counties.  There is a lot of grunt work involved.  So some may decide to skip the grunt work and not bother.

On the other hand, in March 2011 there were 25,315 full-time equivalent workers in New York State state and local agencies in the Census Bureau’s “Financial Administration” category.  You’d think one would be able to do as a job what I have done in my spare time.

Having worked in the public sector, I think I know another reason why this sort of data doesn’t get compiled and put out there in a comprehensive way.  It has the potential to raise questions, and those in charge don’t want the serfs asking questions.  They want to see the data first, to check if it supports what they want to see happen, and only publish it selectively, with spin attached.  The same may be said of the various non-profit groups that concern themselves with state and local policies here.  All have funders, and those funders have interests.

There is even a little game that is used within bureaucracy. There is no such thing as perfect data, or perfect comparisons based on data.  So if the data available does not support someone’s interests or ideology, any imperfections are used as an excuse not to make it available to the broader public.  But if the data does support those interests or that ideology, then it is held to worth reporting despite its imperfections, because it is the best available and, in any event, decisions need to be made.

As someone once put it, however, you are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.  Is there anyone else out there who is interested in producing those facts and not tied down by someone else’s interests?  If so, let me know, and perhaps we could work on it together.