14.2 Public-Sector Institutions’ Data

Public sector institutional sources gather, generate and use data for a wide number of purposes. Government agencies collect data about the economic health of the nation or the community; the production of goods and services; the health of the food supply. As we learned from recent news reports, one particular U.S. federal government agency has been (mostly illegally) collecting data on billions of phone calls, texts and email messages coming in and going out of the country.

Government agencies at all levels collect data about individuals, organizations, and activities in order to allocate funds, administer justice and legislate/regulate. One of the key “information functions” of the U.S. federal government is to collect and produce statistics about the population (the decennial Census of Population), business, labor, trade, agriculture, education, crime, defense and myriad other topics.

State governments generate data about the same sorts of topics as they relate to a particular state’s interests. For instance, a state that depends on growing corn for much of its economic prosperity will collect and generate different types of data than one that depends on mining iron ore or coal. These data will be collected and generated for economic purposes, for the purpose of regulation/legislation, and for a variety of other purposes that meet the state’s need for information. These data are also generally accessible to the public, including communicators, because they are generated at public expense.

Local governments at the city and county level also collect and generate data. Again, much of this material is necessary for the smooth functioning of the government agencies themselves, but the data are also available to the public.

Let’s look at some of the specific types of data you can find.

  • Local and municipal governments

    • may subject institutions to inspections by the county food-service inspection agency or related public safety watchdogs

    • issue contracts for service from for-profit vendors; if the company you are profiling does business with the local government, the terms of that work are available

    • rent city facilities to for-profit or non-profit institutions; is the institution you are profiling paying its bills in a timely way?

    • issue warrants for arrest and keep track of calls for service; if the institution or individual you are profiling has had run-ins with the law, you can request those records

This is just a sampling of the types of records you might want to search at the local or municipal level. In almost all instances, these government entities now have websites where individuals (not just communicators) can request public records and conduct searches.

  • State governments

    • require for-profit and non-profit institutions to file articles of incorporation which provide extensive background about the finances and top managers of the organization. Such records are searchable through the Secretary of State for that state

    • require many institutions or individuals to carry a license to conduct business. This “permission” to do business affects business people from the ice-cream vendor on the street corner to the local styling salon to the hospital serving thousands of patients every year. Every state now has a website(s) where licensing information is managed.

    • collect state taxes from for-profit institutions; some of the information about tax revenue generated from these types of institutions are a matter of public record; the state Department of Revenue will be the place to search

    • maintain regulatory oversight records about the compliance or non-compliance of institutions; if the company you are profiling is required to adhere to regulations about environmental protection, for instance, you can search for those oversight records. The state Environmental Protection Agency or Pollution Control Agency would have searchable records

Again, this is just a tiny fraction of the material that is available by searching the appropriate public agency databases for data about the organizations or individuals you are profiling.

  • Federal government

    • requires that publicly held companies (that is, companies that sell stock to the public) file quarterly and annual reports on their financial condition; the reports include the names of corporate officers along with their salaries, bonuses and certain fringe benefits. Additional content of these reports includes information on new products and services; acquisition, sales, divestiture or merger plans; major lawsuits in which the company was engaged; and government actions or regulations that affect business; these reports are available through the the Securities and Exchange Commission

    • requires that non-profit organizations file financial information (called an IRS 990) with the Internal Revenue Service in order to maintain their non-profit status; the IRS 990 includes detailed information about the organization’s mission, programs and how it is raising and spending its money; non-profits include everything from the local cemetery to the Howard Hughes Medical Institution and these IRS 990 reports can be searched using a tool called GuideStar

    • requires for-profit companies with international business activities to file extensive information about their trade agreements with foreign governments, their import and export activities and related materials; the International Trade Administration (a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) publishes vast information about U.S. exporters and their economic impacts; if the for-profit institution you are profiling is selling commodities overseas, you will want to search some of these federal agency websites

    • collects and publishes extensive statistical information about every conceivable activity; the most useful tool to identify statistics and the agencies that generate them is FedStats.

As we’ve said many times, these are just a small fraction of the types of data that are gathered by public-sector institutions.