The advantages and disadvantages of administrative data can be identified most easily when they are compared with survey data. However, the comparison of these two types of data collection is a straw man. The research questions that are appropriately addressed are qualitatively different from those appropriately addressed by surveying a subset of the general population. The type of data that one should use for answering a particular research question should be determined by the question. If a comprehensive study of a particular issue requires a survey of a population not covered by administrative data or if important variables are unavailable, other data collection is necessary. However, it is almost always the case that a rich study of a particular issue that identifies or rules out multiple potential causes or correlates of a particular phenomena requires data from multiple sources.
Administrative data, in most cases, are superior to other data sources for identifying program participation--what benefits were provided to whom, when, and in what amount. (The exact reason why people are participating is often missing.) Administrative data are collected on an entire population of individuals or families participating in a given program. This is advantageous for two reasons. First, it is possible to study low-incidence phenomena that may be expensive to uncover in a survey of the general population. Second, and related to the first, it is possible to study the spread of events over a geographical area; this is even easier if extensive geographical identifiers are available on the data record. Given that information about events is usually collected when the events happen, there is much less opportunity for errors because of faulty recall.
Using administrative data is also advantageous for uncovering information that a survey respondent is unlikely to provide in an interview. In our work, we were relatively certain that families would underreport their incidence of abuse or neglect. The same issue exists for mental health or substance abuse treatment. Although survey methods have progressed significantly in addressing sensitive issues, administrative data can prove to be an accurate source of indicators for phenomena that are not easily reported by individuals--if one can satisfactorily address issues of accessing sensitive or confidential data.
Because the data record for an individual or case is likely viewed often by the program staff, opportunities exist for correcting and updating the data fields. The value of this is even greater when the old information is maintained in addition to the updates. A major problem with administrative data archiving and storing is that when data are updated, the old information is lost when it is overwritten.
As noted, the disadvantages of administrative data are often listed as a contrast to the characteristics of survey data. Although this may be a straw man argument, other legitimate concerns should be addressed when using administrative data. The concerns are related to the choice-, event-, or participation-based nature of the data; the reliability of administrative data for research purposes; the lack of adequate control variables; and the facts that all outcomes of interest are not measured (e.g., some types of indicators of well-being) that data are available only for the periods that the client is in the program, and that the level of reliability of administrative data is uncertain. Also, the data are difficult to access because of confidentiality issues (as far as getting informed consent) and because of bureaucratic issues in obtaining approval. When the data will be available, therefore, is often unpredictable.
Finally, there is often a lack of documentation and information about quality. One must do ethnographic research to uncover "qualitative" information about the condition of the data. There is no shortcut for understanding the process behind the collection, processing, and storage of the administrative data.