top of page
  • Writer's pictureAdmin

Federal reports often skip US territories

GAO cites data gaps in federal statistics for Guam, CNMI. American Samoa, Puerto Rico and USVI

 By Jayvee Vallejera


The Government Accountability Office has identified gaps in federal data on five U.S. territories that could limit the federal government's understanding of territory needs and how to best allocate resources.

It recommends that the Office of Management and Budget develop a governmentwide approach for agencies to use to address these data gaps.

GAO, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, states in a new report that a majority of statistical reports issued by federal agencies exclude at least one of the five territories: Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The review found gaps in coverage, disparities and lags in reporting, and different mechanisms for measuring data quality.

GAO attributes these gaps to a mix of cost, geography, and technical issues, as well as the fact that the treatment of the territories differs across agencies in the federal statistical system.

“Territories face many data gaps, primarily because federal agencies do not include them in many statistical products,” the GAO report also states. “These gaps can limit understanding of the conditions and resource needs of the territories."

Making matters worse is that efforts to address these issues have been uncoordinated, GAO said.

Of the 52 statistical products the National Agricultural Statistical Service reported to GAO, only one—the Census of Agriculture—includes the territories.

Of the 21 products reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, none included American Samoa or the CNMI; Puerto Rico was included in the most at four.


Even when territories are included in federal statistical products, GAO said statistical data from territories typically lag behind data from the rest of the U.S.

Another factor that contributes to the data gap is the much larger sampling size needed for smaller jurisdictions to achieve the same level of precision as sampling of larger populations.

“Jurisdictions with smaller populations need relatively larger samples for the same margin of error,” states the report released May 9.

In the case of Guam, with a population of 153,836, statistical studies will need a sample size of 24.97 percent just to reach a 1 percent margin of error. In comparison, the same study in California would only need a sample size of .10 percent to achieve the same margin of error.

Other factors that contribute to the data gaps are related to the agencies' authorizing statutes and geography. GAO also found that agencies generally have not researched the costs, benefits, or feasibility of actions to increase the scope of federal statistical products to include the territories.

It’s not as if the territories are not doing anything about this. They have taken steps to remedy the problem, albeit with limited results. For example, officials from both American Samoa and USVI are reportedly collecting their own data equivalent to the data collected by the BLS and the Census Bureau, respectively.

“Officials from CNMI and Guam described efforts to update their address lists, while officials from Puerto Rico described local efforts to improve how their gross domestic product is calculated,” GAO said.

The Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs is also trying to alleviate the situation by funding its technical assistance program to strengthen local statistical efforts. From fiscal years 2019 through 2023, the OIA allocated a total of over $60 million to this program.

Still, these efforts are not enough, GAO said, adding that there is no coordinated, government-wide approach for agencies to use in deciding whether to collect data and report statistics from territories in federal statistical products.


GAO recommends that the OMB develop—in consultation with the territories—a coordinated, governmentwide approach for federal statistical agencies to use in examining and addressing territorial data gaps. That would include studying the costs, benefits, and feasibility of including territories in statistical products and identifying ways to address any data gaps.

“[This] would improve the transparency of statistical decisions,” the GAO report states.

Improved data collection for the territories could also better inform federal decision-makers about how to allocate resources to the territories and how to evaluate the effectiveness of those investments, it added.

GAO reports that OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation but provided technical comments. GAO said it will update its report once it has confirmed what action the OMB has taken in response.

The U.S. government needs evidence, including statistics, to guide decision-making, evaluate the effectiveness of programs, and determine where best to target resources; it is also expected to ensure the quality of the data used for these purposes.

GAO said the U.S. territories continue to face a host of economic challenges, including declining populations, high costs of energy and imported goods, frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as typhoons, and limited economies with few industries and job opportunities.

On top of these challenges was the Covid-19 pandemic that devastated the tourism industry and made matters worse.

Smaller economies have smaller gross domestic products, rendering the U.S. territories highly vulnerable to these challenges.

GAO believes that patching these data gaps will help identify solutions and targeted infusion of resources.

Rep. Uifa’atali Amata Radewagen, American Samoa's congressional delegate, said GAO previously worked with her office to help identify and correct the disparities in Medicaid funding and matching requirements.

"We were able to turn that into legislation that fixed those disparities to reduce our cost share requirements and provide more coverage at a lower cost to our local government,” Radewagen said.

“I want to thank the GAO staff for working with all the territorial congressional offices to put this new Report together so that we can use it to educate our colleagues from the states, help craft legislative solutions, and correct disparities in the funding of federal programs for the territories,” she added.

Subscribe to

our digital

monthly edition


bottom of page