Administrative records are an important source of information for social science
research. For many years, demographers have used information from birth and
death certificates to analyze various public health trends. Today, administrative
data is becoming increasingly common in research about child care and early
education policy. These data often are a relatively cost-effective way to learn
more about all of the individuals and families using a particular public service,
but they do have some important limitations.
- Administrative data make possible analyses at the state and local levels that are rarely possible
using national survey data
- Such data often contain detailed, accurate measures of participation in various social programs.
They typically include large numbers of cases, making possible many different types of analyses
- At the state level, such data provide effective ways for assessing state-specific programs and can
be useful for several forms of
- It is often less expensive than other methods of data collection
Administrative data are collected to manage services and comply with government reporting regulations.
Because the original purpose of the data is not research, this presents several challenges.
- The administrative data only describe the families using a service and provide no information about
similar families who do not use a service
- The potential observation period for any subject being studied (e.g., a person, a family, a child
care program) is limited to the period of time that the subject is using the service for which the data
are being collected
- Only those services that are publicly funded generally are described in the administrative data.
In most states, it would be impossible to rely on subsidy data to learn about non-subsidized forms of
child care being used to augment child care that is subsidized
- Many variables used in administrative data are not updated regularly, so it is important to learn
how and when each variable is collected. For instance, an "earnings" variable in administrative data
for subsidized child care generally is entered at the time that eligibility is determined and then
updated when eligibility is redetermined. There is no way to know, using administrative data alone,
whether the "earnings" amount in the data is a family's earnings in the months between eligibility
determination and redetermination
- Important variables needed for a particular research study may not be collected in administrative data
Researchers interested in using administrative data for the purpose of research
should expect to invest considerable time learning about the details of the
administrative data system, the specific data elements being used, the data
entry process and standards, and changes in the data system and data definitions
over time. It also takes time to transform administrative data into research
datasets that can be used in statistical analyses.
Important issues usually confront researchers who have decided to use administrative
data records in their research. Among the most important of these issues are:
Obtaining Data Access and Ensuring Confidentiality. To obtain administrative
data, a researcher and the agency responsible for the data must reach an agreement
on how the data is to be used and processed, how confidentiality will be maintained
and how the research results will be disseminated.
Documentation of Source Data
- Once researchers have obtained the administrative records of interest, they must become familiar
with the idiosyncrasies of the data
- If using data obtained from more than one agency, researchers must be careful to assess the
comparability of the data and quality of the linkage between the data systems
- Researchers must also learn about, understand, and document changes in the definition and meaning
of data elements over time as well the procedures for updating data values
- Researchers should carefully document variable definitions, value codes, any recodes that the
agency implemented, changes in definitions and their effective dates and information on how the agency
collected the data
Documentation of Program Parameters and Context. In addition to documenting
data, investigators should also take great care to document the important parameters
of the program that collected the data and to describe the policy context at the time the data were
Frequently with administrative data, no sampling is done since information
must be collected on the entire population of recipients for administrative
purposes. Sometimes, in order to insure the protection of subject confidentiality
a subsample from the full population is selected. Studies that combine the use of survey research and
administrative data records may also select only a sample of the potential population in order to
minimize data collection costs.
Potential measurement error in administrative data can pose a substantial challenge
to analysts using these data. Causes of measurement error include:
- Data that were improperly entered at the agency
- Incomplete or inaccurate items, particularly those not used by the agency collecting the data
- Old values on variables that have been overwritten by updated versions when cases are reviewed
When using administrative data, the researcher must keep in mind important ethical considerations.
- Primarily, the researcher must assure fair treatment of information about individuals that she or
he is analyzing. This includes maintaining
and ideally, anonymity
- There are many legal protections set by the federal and state governments that require the privacy
of program applicant information. For instance, in 1977, the Privacy Protection Study Commission
determined that records or information used for statistical research could not be used in an
individually identifiable form and that researchers could not take any action that would affect the
individual to whom the information pertains
The Joint Center for Poverty Research offers many recommendations
on using administrative data.
The Joint Center for Poverty Research recognizes the following centers as having
successfully used administrative data in their research efforts: