Today's Article
The feds collect data
on sexual violence,
but 'differences
across the data
collection efforts...lead
to varying estimates of
sexual violence,' says
the GAO.
The American Spark
Federal Data On Sexual Violence Unclear And Inconsistent

By Cliff Montgomery - Aug. 26th, 2016

Although a number of federal agencies collect data on sexual violence, “differences across the data collection
efforts ... lead to varying estimates of sexual violence,”
according to a recently released study from the
Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Such “differences in data collection efforts may hinder the understanding of the occurrence of sexual

violence, and agencies’ efforts to explain and lessen differences have been fragmented and limited in
scope,” stated the report.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has the authority to coordinate federal statistics, and in the

past has convened inter-agency working groups to achieve that end - yet the “OMB has no plans to convene
a working group on sexual violence data,” declared the GAO study.

Below, The
American Spark quotes the entire “Highlights” segment of the GAO report:


Why GAO Did This Study

“Concerns have grown about sexual violence—in general, unwanted sexual acts—in the United States,
particularly involving certain populations such as college students, incarcerated individuals, and military
personnel.

“Data on the occurrence of sexual violence are critical to preventing, addressing, and understanding the
consequences of these types of crimes. GAO was asked to identify and compare federal efforts to collect
data on sexual violence.

“This report addresses two questions: (1) What are the federal efforts underway to collect data on sexual
violence, and how, if at all, do these efforts differ? (2) How do any differences across the data collection
efforts affect the understanding of sexual violence, and to what extent are federal agencies addressing any
challenges posed by the differences?

“GAO reviewed agency documentation and academic literature, and interviewed agency officials.

What GAO Found

“Four federal agencies—the Departments of Defense, Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), and
Justice (DOJ)—manage at least 10 efforts to collect data on sexual violence, which differ in target population,
terminology, measurements, and methodology. Some of these data collection efforts focus on a specific
population that the agency serves—for example, the incarcerated population—while others include information
from the general population.

“These data collection efforts use 23 different terms to describe sexual violence. Data collection efforts also
differ in how they categorize particular acts of sexual violence.

“For example, the same act of sexual violence could be categorized by one data collection effort as “rape,”
whereas it could be categorized by other efforts as “assault-sexual” or “non-consensual sexual acts,” among
other terms.

“In addition, five data collection efforts—overseen by Education, HHS, and DOJ—reflect inconsistencies
between their measurements and definitions of sexual violence.

“Further, these data collection efforts do not have publicly-available descriptions of what is included in their
respective measurements to allow persons using the data to understand the differences, which may lead to
confusion for data users.

“Publicly-available measurement information could enhance the clarity and transparency of sexual violence
data.

“Data collection efforts also differ in terms of the context in which data are collected, data sources, units of
measurement, and time frames.

“Differences in data collection efforts may hinder the understanding of the occurrence of sexual violence, and
agencies’ efforts to explain and lessen differences have been fragmented and limited in scope.

“Differences across the data collection efforts may address specific agency interests, but collectively, the
differences lead to varying estimates of sexual violence.

“For example, in 2011 (the most recent year of available data), estimates ranged from 244,190 rape or sexual
assault victimizations to 1,929,000 victims of rape or attempted rape. These differences can lead to confusion
for the public.

“Officials from federal agencies and entities GAO spoke with who use federal data on sexual violence
emphasized that the differences across the data collection efforts are such that the results are not
comparable, and entities reported using data that best suited their needs.

“Agencies have taken some steps to clarify the differences between the data collection efforts. For example,
two DOJ entities co-authored a statement that describes the differences between their two efforts.

“In addition, agencies have taken some steps to harmonize the data collection efforts—that is, coordinate
practices to achieve a shared goal. However, actions to increase harmonization have been fragmented,
generally only involving 2 of the 10 data collection efforts at a time, and [have been] limited in scope.

“The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) through its authority to coordinate federal statistics has
previously convened inter-agency working groups, such as the Interagency Working Group for Research on
Race and Ethnicity, to improve federal statistics. [But] OMB has no plans to convene a working group on
sexual violence data.

“Additional collaboration, facilitated by OMB, between agencies that manage data collection efforts about
which differences help or hinder the overall understanding of sexual violence could help to clarify the scope of
the problem of sexual violence in the United States.

What GAO Recommends

“GAO recommends that Education, HHS, and DOJ make information that is included in their measurements
of sexual violence publicly available.

“GAO also recommends that OMB establish a federal inter-agency forum on sexual violence data.

“Education, HHS, and DOJ agreed with the recommendation.

“OMB stated that convening a forum may not be the most effective use of resources at this time, in part
because the data collection efforts are not far enough along in their research.

“However, OMB said it will consider convening or sharing information across agencies in the future.”



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