Using Aggregate Administrative Data in Social Policy Research

Publication Date: March 27, 2017

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Policymakers are increasingly interested in using administrative data to address policy-relevant research questions. While researchers generally prefer individual-level administrative data in order to provide maximum flexibility to their analyses, it can be both difficult and costly to obtain. When individual-level data are not available or are too difficult or costly, aggregate administrative data can address many policy-relevant research questions.


The purpose of this brief is to provide an overview of how aggregate administrative data can be used in social policy research. The brief discusses when aggregate data are appropriate, the requirements of the data, and limitations to using aggregate data, and offers a few recommendations for expanding the usability of aggregate administrative data in social policy research.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Researchers should consider several factors when deciding whether aggregate data are appropriate for an analysis.
    • What are the research questions? Aggregate data is appropriate for research questions aimed at understanding the relationship between a group-level characteristic and an individual-level outcome, as well as the relationship between two group-level characteristics.
    • How are the data constructed? The aggregate data and the individual-level data must be based on the same underlying data set in order for the analyses to be comparable.
    • What types of outcome measures are available? Researchers should consider whether the outcome measures available in aggregate form are sufficient to answer the question of interest.


Jacob, Robin (2016). Using aggregate administrative data in social policy research, OPRE Report #2016-91, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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