GAO asked to look into data collection gaps in US territories
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources have asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the gaps in data collection for the U.S. territories and their impact on federal funding and allocation policies.
"Current and complete information is essential to good decision-making and it is important for Congress to understand the obstacles presented in U.S. territories by the unavailability of the current population, economic, labor force, or agricultural data," the committee members wrote in a letter to GAO Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro.
The letter, dated April 5, was signed by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and the five territorial delegates: Rep. Gregorio Sablan (D-CNMI), Rep. Michael San Nicolas (D-Guam), Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-USVI), Rep. Jenniffer González-Colon (R-Puerto Rico) and Rep. Aumua Amata Radewagen (R-American Samoa).
The lawmakers noted that GAO's March 2021 report cited significant data collection challenges, lower completion percentages and other challenges brought on by natural disasters nationwide.
The committee members pointed out that shortcomings in federal agencies' data collection efforts for the U.S. territories have already had long-term impacts.
"Without reliable population, economic, labor force and agricultural data, the territories have been underfunded and underrepresented in certain federal programs," the committee said in a press statement.
In the 2021 report, GAO found that natural disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic created problems in completion rates and delayed timeframes for the 2020 census.
The committee members noted that natural disasters are even more prevalent in American Samoa, Northern Marianas, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Last February, GAO reported additional findings "that highlighted lessons learned from the 2020 census cycle that will help inform the 2030 census cycle," the lawmakers said.
While marking the decennial census as "the most important way to measure" the population of all U.S. jurisdictions and to determine federal program allocations and seat apportionments in legislatures, the lawmakers said the census "is not the only method of collecting reliable information on the U.S. territories."
The lawmakers said the 13 statistical collection agencies in the U.S. government use different methods to collect information on the territories.
The lawmakers recalled that in 2008, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs testified that reliable information on the U.S. territories "does not often exist."
More recently, Interior’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Keone Nakoa said "the lack of parity in data collection continues to be an issue for the U.S. territories as their governments strive to make the most informed decisions for their residents.”
"Improving the government’s capacity for collection and analysis of data is critical in understanding issues related to the U.S. territories," the lawmakers said.
"These U.S. territories already have varying levels of participation in certain federal programs and are denied adequate representation in Congress," the letter states. "As the committee of jurisdiction over issues relating to the U.S. territories, the Committee on Natural Resources is concerned about the accurate counting and publishing of other data products for the U.S. territories."