How Trump’s White House Could Mess With Government Data
Five Thirty Eight
Outright manipulation may be unlikely, but there are subtler things the administration could do.Numbers and data are a backbone of modern life. We cite them buzzily at bars and soberly to bosses so often that “studies show” might as well be given its own entry in the dictionary. Much of what we cite comes from government data — weather patterns, the population or average income of a city, even honeybee activity — collected across innumerable departments, agencies and centers, then made public.
Now, watchdogs are worried that a Donald Trump administration could erode the quality of government data collection and systems. Transparency advocates have raised the possibility that a Trump administration could simply remove data sets. But they have a more foundational worry that the the integrity of U.S. government data could be compromised more subtly and more systematically over the next four years.
Certain steps being taken by the president-elect’s transition team have raised alarm bells for some who worry that Trump’s glibness with the truth could take root in a more institutional form. Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is a climate change denialist. His choice for director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, once called the U.S. employment rate “a very, very fictitious rate.” And last week, Bloomberg reported that the Trump transition team sent a memo to the Department of Energy requesting the names of employees involved in determining climate change metrics and asking the Energy Information Administration “in what instances the EIA’s independence was most challenged over the past eight years.”
Widespread government data tampering remains unlikely given the vast numbers of career bureaucrats working across agencies, according to Alex Howard, senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy organization. But Howard said that Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns could signal that Washington will operate within a new paradigm. “What that tells us is that unless there’s a statutory requirement, there are norms that can be bucked,” he said. Some data, like the Census, is collected and protected by law, but not all of it.
What does have observers worried are two things in particular: budget cuts that could significantly impact data collection and quality, particularly within the government’s statistical agencies — those that produce key economic indicators like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis; and the willful miscommunication of scientific research that proves politically inconvenient to the White House.