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Topic Archives: BLS Management

Catching up on Recent BLS Activities

At BLS, we highly value feedback that can help us improve our economic statistics. Three groups regularly advise us on serving the needs of data users: the BLS Data Users Advisory Committee, the BLS Technical Advisory Committee, and the Federal Economic Statistics Advisory Committee.

I cannot overstate the value of these committees. They have given us truly wonderful ideas. If you want to join these meetings, they are open to the public. You can learn more about future meetings directly from the committee links provided above. I welcome and encourage you to attend.

As the Commissioner of BLS, my role at these meetings is to give an overview of all the new and exciting things happening at BLS. I want to share these updates directly with you, too.

Budgets for Fiscal Years 2022 and 2023

Let’s start with the budgets for fiscal years (FY) 2022 and 2023. For full information on the FY 2022 budget, please see the Department of Labor FY 2022 budget page, which has information on the budget for BLS and other agencies within the Department. You also can see the FY 2023 proposed budget, released on March 28, 2022.

In addition to funding our existing programs, the President’s FY 2023 proposed budget requests additional funds for several BLS initiatives.

We are requesting $14.5 million to continue developing a new National Longitudinal Survey of Youth cohort. We are developing plans for a new cohort called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 2026 (NLSY26). The NLSY26 will build upon our experience and analysis of two ongoing earlier cohorts:

  • NLSY79: A sample of 12,686 people who were born in the years 1957–64. The survey began in 1979, when sample members were ages 14–22. BLS has followed this cohort of late baby boomers for more than 40 years, recording their lives from their teens into their 50s and early 60s.
  • NLSY97: A sample of 8,984 people who were born in the years 1980–84. The survey began in 1997, when sample members were ages 12–17. BLS has followed this cohort for more than 20 years, and sample members are now in their mid-30s to early 40s.

As in previous National Longitudinal Surveys cohorts, BLS plans to ask NLSY26 cohort members a core set of questions on employment, training, education, income, assets, marital status, fertility, health, and occupational and geographic mobility. We also plan to administer cognitive and noncognitive assessments. We are considering other topics as we consult with stakeholders and subject matter experts in a range of fields.

The FY 2023 budget request for BLS also includes the following:

Expanding Our Data

Moving beyond the budget, one topic that’s getting a lot of attention lately is inflation. We’ve been measuring and reporting on inflation at BLS for over a century, and we are always looking for ways to improve our measurement. The National Academy of Sciences, Committee on National Statistics, recently completed a study that focuses on ways to improve the Consumer Price Index. The report provided 37 consensus recommendations on how BLS can adapt to the rapidly changing digital landscape to improve CPI methods. BLS staff are now reviewing the report and developing an action plan based on the committee’s recommendations. You can read my blog about the report and the full report itself.

BLS recently began publishing monthly and quarterly labor force measures for the American Indian and Alaska Native population on February 4, 2022. We have these data back to 2000. Previously, we published data for American Indians and Alaska Natives only annually. You can learn more about the new data in one of my February blog posts.

We now are evaluating whether we can begin publishing monthly and quarterly labor force data for the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population and for detailed Asian groups. The populations of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and detailed Asian groups are relatively small, so we need to evaluate whether the Current Population Survey sample size is large enough to produce reliable monthly estimates for these groups. We currently publish annual data for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and detailed Asian groups in our report on Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity.

Updates for Other Programs

I mentioned the National Longitudinal Surveys already, but the program is also doing other great work! In November 2021 we released data for the NLSY97 COVID-19 Supplement. We collected these data from February to May 2021. The survey asked questions about how the pandemic affected employment, health, and childcare. See our brief analysis of some of the COVID-19 data.

We’re also exploring how to measure the value of household production. BLS contracted with a vendor to consider how to use data from the American Time Use Survey on home production and impute the data to consumer units in the Consumer Expenditure Surveys. We expect to receive the recommendations by the end of the fiscal year.

Also in our Consumer Expenditure Surveys, we conducted an online survey test from November 2021 through January 2022 that will help us analyze alternative methods of collecting data. Response rates for most surveys have been declining for years. The COVID-19 pandemic also has made in-person interviewing less feasible. We are currently analyzing the results of the test to learn how we might reverse the trend of declining response rates and be ready for future events that might disrupt data collection.

Finally, we revamped the BLS Productivity program’s web space in April 2022. Information on labor productivity and total factor productivity is now available in a single cohesive and intuitive space. The new web space eliminates redundant material, improves consistency, and includes new material to fill information gaps. It truly enhances the customer experience!

I hope you find these updates useful and that they improve your experience with BLS data. We are always looking for opportunities to improve your experience with our gold standard economic statistics. Be on the lookout for more updates and improvements as we continuously adapt to meet your needs!

A Blueprint for Modernizing the Consumer Price Index

At BLS, we never stop improving. We highly value any input from our data users, technical advisors, and other experts that helps us improve our high quality economic statistics. On May 3, 2022, we welcomed the latest evaluation of one of our statistical programs from the National Academy of Sciences, Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT): Modernizing the Consumer Price Index for the 21st Century.

As we first reported in December 2019, CNSTAT convened an expert panel to study the Consumer Price Index (CPI). In our update in August 2021, we shared the panel membership and described the public meetings where the panel gathered information for its report. Now that the panel has completed its report, we share our plans to address their recommendations:

  • Adopt an alternative data strategy that significantly expands the use of new data sources and collection methods.
  • Improve the timeliness and quality of market basket weights in the CPI.
  • Continue research to enhance and inform the public’s understanding of consumer price change for shelter and medical care.
  • Calculate income-based CPIs and address methodology limitations.
  • Collaborate across the federal and international statistical system.

Use Alternative Data Sources

The chapter on modernizing elementary indexes focused on alternative data sources. Using data from sources beyond traditional surveys is a theme throughout the report. The recommendation to develop a household scanner data program would be a long-term strategy to address many challenges of calculating an accurate and timely CPI. BLS agrees with the panel to seek new data sources to improve every aspect of price index calculation: prices, expenditures (including the quantities purchased), quality adjustment, modeling, estimation, and imputation. Doing so will enable BLS to improve and expand the data we produce and provide users the data they need when they need it.

Even before the CNSTAT report, BLS has been busy building a pipeline of alternative data sources and improving our estimation methods for the CPI. Increasing the focus on alternative data should generate a steady flow of new data sources. This focus also will improve our ability to collect data through a variety of methods and give us new opportunities to address quality change. Consistent with our values to provide accessible information, we will keep you informed about new data sources and methods through the BLS website.

Improve Timeliness and Quality of Market Basket Weights

Beginning in January 2023, BLS plans to update market basket weights in the CPI annually, using 1 year of data. This change will immediately improve the timeliness of the market basket. BLS will continue our efforts to collect and process data more quickly to calculate the CPI using the most recent spending information.

BLS uses several data sources to adjust data collected in the Consumer Expenditure Surveys to calculate the CPI market basket weights. BLS will analyze the feasibility of using business data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis to adjust for categories consumers are reluctant to report, such as alcohol and tobacco. BLS plans to research alternative data sources to improve expenditure estimates when information from respondents is missing or aggregated.

BLS continues to believe collecting data directly from consumers is important to achieve our measurement objective. We are conducting research on a Household Cost Index, which requires household-level expenditure estimates to calculate household-specific indexes. As the panel notes, indexes for specific populations also require linking expenditures with information about households. Given current resources, we do not plan to expand our use of data from other sources in the next few years to supplement data collected in the Consumer Expenditure Surveys. In the future, BLS could pursue a household scanner data program to address the concerns the panel raises regarding the Consumer Expenditure Surveys.

Modernize Shelter

BLS is exploring alternative data sources to supplement rents collected in our housing survey and improve imputation of rental equivalence estimates for owner-occupied housing . We will continue to produce research indexes that meet user needs. BLS plans to publish research on a rent index focused on new tenants. Future research will target alternatives to rent data as a proxy for rental equivalence in predominantly owner-occupied areas and alternatives to the rental equivalence approach for high-end properties.

All BLS consumer indexes currently use a rental equivalence approach to target a cost-of-living measurement objective. Research indexes based on occupancy (renter and owner) will provide users with more insight. Some users need indexes for certain populations. As already mentioned, BLS will continue to research a Household Cost Index that uses a payments approach for owner-occupied housing. Some of these research indexes may ultimately be “promoted” to official status.

Modernize Medical Care

BLS uses an indirect method to price health insurance because directly pricing health insurance premiums is difficult. We have confirmed the retained earnings data incorporate rebates and will pursue further improvements to the indirect approach. We are pursuing implementation of claims data for physician’s and hospital outpatient services and will monitor hospital price transparency data as a possible data source in the future. Research comparing the indirect and direct methods is well underway and will be published initially as a research paper.

Calculate Supplemental Population Price Indexes

BLS continues research on producing price indexes by income groups. While BLS recognizes the limited benefit of reweighting the market basket to create indexes for particular population groups, we believe indexes for renters and owners will provide more insight into measuring price change for shelter. BLS will continue to seek cost-effective methods to study household behaviors and seek resources to collect household scanner data linked with demographics.

Collaborate with Other Statistical Organizations

Another theme throughout the report is communication and collaboration among statistical agencies. The panel recommended expanding collaboration, especially in research and data sharing. As the complexity of data sources and methods increases, BLS also needs to communicate with stakeholders to maintain transparency. Our practice is to announce on the BLS website in advance any changes to our data sources or methods. We will continue to share research index results to document the impact of these changes. BLS is looking into new ways of sharing data and improving transparency.

We value our partnerships with other agencies in the federal and international statistical community. In June 2022, we will share the CNSTAT recommendations with the Federal Economic Statistics Advisory Committee and discuss our plans. We will continue to seek out new opportunities to connect and collaborate with colleagues in the government, academic, and private sectors as we improve our statistics. We also will ensure our staff has the skills to innovate the modern methods of the future. In the last few years, BLS developed an in-house Data Science Training Program designed to bring awareness and improve the skills of BLS staff in key areas of data science. This annual program introduces a new cohort of BLS staff to these concepts, with plans to scale for larger cohorts in the future and include more specialized learning streams.

It is an exciting time to produce economic statistics. Their importance is paramount, and the opportunities have expanded to improve their accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. The CNSTAT’s latest report on the CPI is a valuable guide to help us keep improving and continue to produce gold standard data well into the future.

Answers to Some Recent Questions about BLS Data

I tell anyone who will listen that BLS staff love to talk about our data. We have LIVE people at the end of the phone line (or email request) who are happy to answer questions about BLS data and the methods behind those data. The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped our ability to respond to public questions. Even in our telework posture, we pride ourselves on outstanding customer service. All BLS statistical programs have staff who answer public information requests. We also have a central information staff out of our national office and eight information offices scattered around the country. Yes, we get questions, and we are more than happy to provide answers.

Recently, we’ve received some general questions about our methods, which cover multiple BLS programs. Here are a few of those questions and our answers.

Why does BLS revise published estimates?

One of the hallmarks of BLS economic indicators is their prompt release. We provide a “first look” at a variety of economic conditions, including employment and unemployment, price change, wages, productivity, and more. To release these data in a timely manner, we follow very strict data collection and processing schedules. Data obtained after the collection deadline are not included in the initial release but can be incorporated later. We identify data subject to these revisions as preliminary. Revisions are a necessary part of the statistical estimation process to ensure accuracy.

The Producer Price Index (PPI) recently expanded the amount of revised data available to the public. PPI data are revised for 4 months following initial release, again to account for information received following the initial deadline, thus providing a clearer picture of price change. Until recently, revised data were only available in the fourth month. For example, July data originally published in August would be revised with the November release in December. The expanded data now available show monthly revisions for each of the 4 months following initial release. So, following the initial release of July data in August, revised data for July are available in September, October, and November, before we release final data in December. This change is in response to requests from data users for these interim values.

Other BLS programs release periodic revisions as updated data become available, providing a clearer view of the economy. For example, the Current Employment Statistics program has more information about the monthly revisions to payroll employment data. Details about the methods behind all BLS programs are available in the BLS Handbook of Methods.

Why is it important to respond to BLS surveys?

We carefully design our survey samples to represent the people and businesses in the United States. Without input from these sample members, BLS indicators would not accurately reflect the economic and social conditions in our country. We strive to make completing our surveys as easy as possible, and we often offer multiple ways to provide information. We design survey questions that are easy to understand and answer in a short period of time.

Nearly all of our surveys are voluntary, which means the people, households, and organizations selected can choose whether to participate. We are grateful that the great majority of them agree to participate. The information benefits all of us.

BLS maintains response rate information on our website and updates this information on a regular basis. This information can be very technical, which is why BLS staff stand ready to answer any questions you might have about response rates.

Check out this video to learn more about the importance of responding to BLS surveys.

What effect did the pandemic have on BLS survey participation?

With some careful planning, a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck, BLS has been able to release all planned data products on schedule, despite the pandemic. We weathered both internal and external challenges. While many of our tasks had been successfully tested in remote environments, we had to change a few processes. Fortunately, those changed processes were successful, and some even spawned innovations we will continue. Externally, we were mindful that many businesses had limited operations or were closed, and many households were preoccupied with illness, childcare, and other responsibilities. Response rates did decline. Since the start of the pandemic, each BLS program has provided more information about survey response and methods. In some cases, response rates have recovered from their pandemic lows, but many are still below levels before the pandemic.

What steps has BLS introduced to combat weak survey response during the pandemic?

BLS takes many different approaches to data collection and works closely with our partners in the states and other statistical agencies to obtain high quality information from businesses and households. Traditionally, some data collection is done in person, where BLS builds a relationship with survey respondents and shows them the importance of response. BLS also offers many options designed to make ongoing response easy, including use of the internet, email, file transfer, and others. At the start of the pandemic, BLS suspended all in-person data collection. We were fortunate that many businesses, even many of those with limited operations during the pandemic, maintained electronic records they provided to BLS, allowing us to continue producing key economic data.

For our part, the pandemic provided an opportunity to accelerate our ongoing move away from paper and mail. We used phone and email to contact respondents and obtain their data. We also began to experiment with video data collection, a process that proved very successful and is now a vital part of our data collection toolkit. While we started slowly with video collection, and took particular care to ensure confidentiality, we quickly discovered huge benefits. BLS staff can use video communications systems to share their screen, demonstrate BLS confidentiality procedures, show data products, and more. In person, shuffling all these papers can be a little unwieldy. With a little practice and planning, video data collection has proved invaluable.

BLS also has explored ways of capturing information without burdening respondents at all. In some cases, we are able to use web scraping to obtain needed data. We are also exploring supplemental data sources, such as data aggregators and crowd sourcing websites. We have accelerated these explorations during the pandemic. We are learning a lot and obtaining more and more data through these alternative approaches, which can mitigate the effects of declining response rates on data quality. These efforts will ensure that BLS data products remain of high quality with enough detail for stakeholders, while lessening respondent burden.

We will return to some in-person data collection over time and will use those interactions to build ongoing relationships. But we also will continue to advance these innovations, such as video collection and web scraping, as options to make data collection more efficient in the future.

It’s a Small Statistical World

BLS is one of several U.S. statistical agencies that follow consistent policies and share best practices. These agencies also frequently work with their statistical counterparts around the world to develop standards, share information, troubleshoot issues, and improve the quality of available data. At BLS, our Division of International Technical Cooperation coordinates these activities. The division helps to strengthen statistical development by organizing seminars, consultations, and meetings for international visitors with BLS staff. The division also provides BLS input on global statistical initiatives. Without missing a beat, most of these activities moved to virtual platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite some time-zone challenges, which often lead to early morning or late-night video meetings, BLS continues to play an active role on the world stage.

World map

Today I’m highlighting some recent international engagements, which have included our colleagues from Australia, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, Mexico, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. These events are often mutually beneficial, as they provide opportunities for BLS staff to learn more about the experiences of our international counterparts.

  • BLS staff met with a former Australian Bureau of Statistics official who was working with the U.K. Statistics Authority and the U.K. Office for National Statistics to research best practices in implementing international statistical standards. They discussed the international comparability of domestic industry and product classifications, data quality and publishing, and the independence of statistical organizations.
  • Staff from the Australian Bureau of Statistics are planning to revise their household expenditure survey. They turned to BLS experts, who shared their insights and experiences in improving our Consumer Expenditure Surveys.
  • Staff from the Statistical Division at the United Nations asked BLS to comment on issues surrounding the classification of business functions; household income, consumption, and wealth; and unpaid household service work. Input from staff in multiple offices will inform the BLS response to this request.
  • BLS staff, our counterparts in Canada and Mexico, and colleagues from across Europe and Asia discussed data ethics in a meeting organized by the Centre for Applied Data Ethics at the U.K. Statistics Authority. Country representatives summarized how their organizations assess ethical considerations when producing official statistics. The U.K. Statistics Authority identified the following ethical considerations as being especially important:
Public Good: The use of data has clear benefits for users and serves the public good.
Confidentiality, Data Security: The data subject's identity (whether person or organisation) is protected, information is kept confidential and secure, and the issue of consent is considered appropriately.
Methods and Quality: The risks and limits of new technologies are considered and there is sufficient human oversight so that methods employed are consistent with recognised standards of integrity and quality.
Legal Compliance: Data used and methods employed are consistent with legal requirements.
Public Views and Engagement: The views of the public are considered in light of the data used and the perceived benefits of the research.
Transparency: The access, use and sharing of data is transparent, and is communicated clearly and accessibly to the public.

From its founding, BLS has understood the importance of these issues. Our written policies and strategic plans reflect these principles. They also are reflected in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act and the newly formed Scientific Integrity Task Force, which includes BLS staff among its members.

And that’s just some of what we did this summer! BLS has a longstanding reputation for providing expert training and guidance and participating in international statistical forums. We also provide BLS data to the International Labour Organization and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, among others. These organizations often feature BLS statistics in their databases. Since its inception, BLS has provided technical assistance to our international counterparts, starting with our first Commissioner, Carroll Wright, who directed BLS staff to advise foreign governments establishing statistical agencies. Commissioner Wright was also a member of several international statistical associations, a tradition that continues today. Currently, BLS staff participate in many international expert groups, including the Voorburg Group on Service Statistics, the Wiesbaden Group on Business Registers, and the International Conference of Labor Statisticians. These groups provide BLS staff with opportunities to discuss topics of common interest, to propose and learn about innovative solutions to data measurement issues, and to influence discussions about important economic concepts.

BLS began providing technical assistance in earnest in the late 1940s as part of the U.S. government’s European Economic Recovery Program. BLS staff planned and conducted productivity studies and helped European governments establish their own economic statistics. Similar efforts continue today for our colleagues around the world, many of whom have participated in our international training programs. While we have temporarily halted in-person training programs because of the pandemic, our staff plan to provide more training modules virtually in response to the popularity of these programs. Over the last 10 years, BLS has provided training or other technical assistance to over 1,700 seminar participants and other visitors from 95 countries. More recently, the International Monetary Fund has asked BLS to provide training on Producer Price Indexes and Import and Export Price Indexes to our colleagues abroad.

I am incredibly grateful to all the subject matter experts throughout BLS who provide invaluable assistance with these activities and help maintain our excellent reputation in the international statistical community. We look forward to your continued support as BLS strengthens important international relationships, virtually for now, and hopefully in person soon.

Planning BLS Strategy for 2025 and Beyond

The start of the New Year seems like an appropriate time to share the new BLS Strategic Plan, which is designed to provide a roadmap for BLS over the next 5 years and beyond. Today, I want to tell you a little bit about how we developed this plan and then highlight some of its content.

We have a lot of resources to guide us in crafting the strategic plan. Consider:

  • As an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, BLS provides statistical guidance and support to the department and its agencies. As noted in the Department of Labor’s Strategic Plan, BLS provides sound and impartial information about the economy for decision making.
  • As part of the decentralized U.S. statistical system, BLS works with its sister statistical agencies to share ideas, coordinate common activities, and improve operations.
  • We adhere to various laws, regulations, and policies to ensure that we provide accurate, objective, relevant, timely, and accessible information. Of particular note is the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which reaffirms the confidentiality of statistical information and encourages cooperation and efficiencies across the statistical system.

Using all these inputs, BLS senior staff spent the last year looking both inward and outward to refine our mission and vision, and to identify broad strategies and individual goals and objectives for the coming years. We considered our strengths and weaknesses, looked for opportunities and identified threats, and refined a laundry list of ideas into a concise yet comprehensive plan.

It starts with our mission statement:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures labor market activity, working conditions, price changes, and productivity in the U.S. economy to support public and private decision making.

We then present the values and principles that guide us in fulfilling that mission, including:

  • Independence from partisan interests
  • Consideration of the needs of a diverse set of customers
  • Confidentiality of our data providers
  • Innovation
  • Stewardship of our staff and our resources

The plan includes five strategies, the first of which is to produce objective statistics and analysis, the core work of our agency. While always striving to improve, we must never lose focus on the hundreds of new data releases we produce each year.

The remaining strategies focus on how we do our work, and how we improve upon that work. Strategy 2 is about making improvements in the information we provide and what techniques we use to produce that information. Strategy 3 is about our source data, with special focus not only on traditional survey respondents but also on alternative data sources. Strategy 4 focuses on managing the resources that allow us to do our work, including our people, our funding, and our infrastructure. Finally, Strategy 5 is about you—our customers who come to us for information. We strive to let you have a seamless customer experience today, and we look for ways to make that experience even better tomorrow.

One of our many challenges in developing this strategic plan was to ensure all BLS staff see themselves in the strategies, goals, and objectives. We also want all BLS stakeholders—data providers, data users, researchers, policymakers, and more—to see their unique perspectives addressed. We hope you will take a few minutes to review the BLS Strategic Plan and let us know if we’ve met this challenge. Feel free to leave a comment below.