With the State of the USA, Americans will now have a source of reliable, objective information about our increasingly complex society, which they can assimilate, find meaning in and act on to improve the country.

Vartan Gregorian President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York
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The national effort to establish a Key National Indicator System for the United States originated at the local level more than 20 years ago and has grown and evolved to include millions of our fellow citizens around the country. It is a movement of Americans that has grown steadily to include more than a hundred communities, cities, counties, regions and states that have developed key indicator systems to create a more informed and accountable public.

A More Informed, Accountable Democracy

In February 2003, a forum to create a national system of indicators was convened by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in partnership with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS is a congressionally chartered, non-governmental, tax-exempt institution that includes two other honorary academies, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE)and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), as well as its operating arm, the National Research Council (NRC).

More than 60 leaders from around the country gathered to discuss the need to develop a national key national indicator system (KNIS) to create a more informed and accountable democracy. A report on the forum "Assessing the Nation's Position and Progress" (PDF) was released the following May.

Congressional Consideration

U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan
Brownback, R-Kan., requests GAO action. (Photo/U.S. Senate)

Within a few months later, a request was made of the GAO by U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space; Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate, asked. tThe GAO was asked to research the state of the practice in key indicator systems already in place and well underway at all levels of U.S. society. The committee also requested options for Congress to consider in creating a key national indicator system for the U.S.

The GAO's report to Congress, "Informing Our Nation - Improving How to Assess the Position and Progress of the United States" (GAO-05-1), was released in November 2004, and efforts to build awareness of and support for a key national indicator system were informally developed by a National Coordinating Committee.

Incubated by the National Academy of Sciences

In 2005, a group of NCC leaders requested that the presidents of the NAS, NAE and IOM take a role in incubating the effort to develop a key national indicator system for the country. Over the next two years, the Key National Indicators Initiative (KNII) was developed at the NAS, funded by leading private foundations. During this period, work focused on risk assessment, feasibility analysis and research around content, technology and organizational issues.

Individuals from many organizations were involved working under the auspices of the NAS. This work, involving a diverse group of individuals from the nonprofit, private and public sectors, resulted in a comprehensive working set of key questions, issues, and specific indicators for the nation.

Efforts in technology development produced a demonstration website that helped build a vision for how the indicators might be accessed and used by individuals and organizations. Simultaneously, organizational work resulted in an analysis of various options for formalizing an institutional structure to support the development and updating of an indicator system.

By late 2006, KNII leaders with the concurrence of the NAS decided to follow one of the options recommended by the GAO -- that a key national indicator system could best be pursued at this stage by establishing an independent, private, non-partisan, tax-exempt institution that could partner with government but involve multiple sectors and levels of society in its work.

Bipartisan Support for Legislation

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., deceased Senator Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.
Kennedy, D-Mass., deceased, and Enzi, R-Wyo., propose the legislation in Congress. (Photos/U.S. Senate)

In November of 2006, the GAO formally recommended (PDF) that a key national indicator system be developed as part of a report detailing its highest priority areas for action in the 110th Congress. In March of 2007, The State of the USA was founded and in July of that year, it gained approval as a tax-exempt organization.

President Barack Obama
President Obama signed the bill into law on March 23, 2010. (Photo/Pete Souza)

The State of the USA then began to: fund, design and build a key national indicator system; and increase its coordination with the federal government, working on options for formalizing such a public/private partnership into law.

By the end of 2008, a legislative proposal for a key national indicator system had been created -- The Key National Indicators Act (PDF) -- with bipartisan co-sponsorship by U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and U.S. Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo..

The effort gained additional bipartisan support in the Senate that year and throughout 2009. A simplified version of this language was signed into law by President Barack Obama in March 2010 as P.L. 111-148 (PDF).

State of the USA's Work

The State of the USA's establishment as a nonprofit entity gave it the independence and flexibility to blend public and private data, to build a broad base of stakeholders and to focus on the challenge of how to make quality statistical data both highly useful and widely used.

The State of the USA launched its version 1.0 website for private beta use during 2010.

When it is officially launched as a public service to the American people, the State of the USA website will provide access to the best available facts drawn from the country's most respected statistical sources, including official government agencies. The site's tools will enable Americans to discover, understand, and share information across the Web through distributed publishing, social networking and other state-of-the-art techniques.

SUSA's goal is to draw on the nonprofit sector as a catalyst to unite policy makers, the public, data providers, educators, business leaders, the media and academia around a single goal: to deepen our factual knowledge and understanding of the country's most pressing issues.

Legislation Specifics

The recent legislation establishing a Key National Indicator System (Section 5605 of P.L. 111-148) authorized the creation of a bipartisan Commission on Key National Indicators 30 days after enactment. The "Commission on Key National Indicators" is composed of eight members, appointed equally by the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and the speaker and the minority leader of the House.

Members may not include elected officials. Individuals shall "...have shown a dedication to improving civic dialogue and decision-making through the wide use of scientific evidence and factual information." All terms are two years except for one that is three years.

The duties of the commission include:

  • Electing two co-chairs from among its members
  • Conducting oversight of a KNIS
  • Making recommendations on how to improve a KNIS
  • Coordinating with federal users and information providers to assure access to relevant and quality data,
  • Entering into a contract with the National Academy of Sciences
  • Delivering an annual report to Congress on implementation of a KNIS.

Implementation of a KNIS under the law is accomplished through the NAS, with funding for the first year authorized at $10 million and $7.5 million per year thereafter. Once the NAS enters into an agreement with the commission co-chairs and Congress appropriates funding to the commission, the NAS can implement the Key National Indicator System..

The legislation specifies that the NAS has the option of either creating a new capability itself or partnering with an outside institution to implement the national Web-based system. Under a recent Memorandum of Understanding, the NAS has agreed to work with The State of the USA as its partner to prepare for implementation of the KNIS. The legislation also gives GAO the authority to evaluate the effort, both financially and programmatically, on behalf of Congress.


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