WASHINGTON -- After 13 1/2 years as head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Janet L. Norwood retires from the government today with a fax machine presented by 325 admiring colleagues, a near-legendary reputation for non-partisanship, and plaudits that include one senator's designation of her as a "national treasure."
If an informed public is essential for democracy, Norwood says, solid data are essential for an informed public.
"You can't have a democratic society without having a good data base," she said.
But while Norwood, the first person to rise through the bureau's ranks to the top, is proud of her role in keeping the agency up to date, she frets about unfinished business. In particular, she bemoans the lack of the coherence in federal data gathering that she considers necessary to help the nation meet competitive challenges in the next century.
"We have a good system, but it is becoming increasingly fragmented," Norwood said during an extended interview. "We don't have a system that really coordinates all the money that is being spent on statistics -- and most importantly, the quality of that work."
She cited, among other new efforts, stepped-up data collection in such areas as the environment, education and law enforcement.
The highway bill signed by President Bush this month authorizes $90 million to create a Bureau of Transportation Statistics, she added.
These efforts are in addition to those of the long-established "Big Four" -- the Commerce Department's Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Agriculture Department and the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Better coordination does not necessarily require an umbrella agency as in Canada, Mexico and some other countries, Norwood said.
But she argues that the United States must at least strengthen its coordination of data gathering, using, say, Japan or Britain as a guide.
A second American failing is the collection and analysis of the figures that permit comparison with the performance of other countries, Norwood said.
As a junior economist in the bureau in the 1960s she researched such things as Burmese labor law and Japanese wages.
"We are not really operating internationally as effectively as we ought," she said, referring to the bureau's data-gathering. "I'm concerned about the increasing effectiveness of other countries. I worry about where we will be 10 or 15 years from now."
After a January vacation, Norwood, a native of Newark, N.J., who is 68, will be analyzing and speaking out about such issues at the Urban Institute, a Washington research organization. She will be free from the burden of administering a federal agency with 2,700 employees and an annual budget of $300 million.
Her successor, expected to come from outside the agency, has not yet been selected, though an advisory committee has screened candidates for the $112,100-a-year job.
William G. Barron, the deputy commissioner, will take over temporarily.