Where does the Federal Data Strategy go from here? Evidence panel members revisit ideas

Before the Trump administration issued the one-year action plan of its Federal Data Strategy this spring, the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking laid the foundation for the strategy’s goals in a report to the president and Congress.

Lawmakers folded many of the commission’s recommendations into the Foundations on Evidence-Based Policy-making Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law in January. The bill tasked agencies with naming chief data officers and chief evaluation officer before the end of July.

While the administration has moved ahead with other steps outlined in the legislation, such as laying the groundwork for a governmentwide CDO Council, former commission members say it’s time for Congress to reconsider some of its unanimous recommendations that never got off the ground.

Katharine Abraham, a former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, now the director of the Maryland Center for Economics and Policy and a professor at the University of Maryland, recalled during her tenure as the commission’s co-chair that the group had a vision for a National Secure Data Service and outlined its role in balancing data security with transparency.

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“Statistical agencies have to be thinking about how they ensure that the information they put out isn’t inadvertently compromising people’s confidentiality,” Abraham said in an interview.

The service, as envisioned by the commission, would “facilitate access to data for evidence building while ensuring privacy and transparency in how those data are used.”

“As a state-of-the-art resource for improving government’s capacity to use the data it already collects, the National Secure Data Service will be able to temporarily link existing data and provide secure access to those data for exclusively statistical purposes in connection with approved projects,” the commission wrote in 2017 in its final report.

Nick Hart, the chief executive officer of the Data Coalition, and the commission’s former policy and research director, said the security center stands out as “single greatest recommendation out of the commission” that has yet to receive attention from Congress.

“There’s an incredible amount of work that still needs to happen in order to advance the recommendation, but if the data service were to exist, it would be able to generate insights about what’s happening in government programs and how we’re influencing the economy and ultimately making our government work better,” Hart told Federal News Network.

That recommendation reflects a trend highlighted by Abraham: that in a more data-rich world, there’s more of a risk that someone can link up data released by statistical agencies and other public data sets to reveal information about individuals that’s been kept strictly confidential by those same agencies.

In the past, statistical agencies would release public-use data files for their survey results, detailing individual-level information, but with all the names, addresses and sensitive information scrubbed out.

But internal testing earlier this year by the Census Bureau revealed that basic personal information from the 2010 census could be uncovered on as many as 45% of respondents from the decennial count through database reconstruction.

The bureau has since implemented a “fundamentally different approach” to prevent the improper disclosure of personal information in the 2020 population count.

“I think what we’re realizing is that we probably, in general, can’t keep doing that … I think we’re going to be moving towards a different model of generating information at statistical agencies,” Abraham said.

But another advisory committee will soon get an opportunity to issue its own recommendations to Congress.

The Evidence Act tasks the Office of Management and Budget with standing up an Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building, which will “make recommendations on how to promote the use of Federal data for evidence building.”

The law directs Chief Statistician Nancy Potok to chair the commission, which will include agency chief information officers, chief privacy officers, chief data officers and chief evaluation officers as its members.

The commission will also include 10 members from state and local governments.

“I hope that once those recommendations have been developed that Congress will act on them,” Abraham said.

The Evidence Act directs agencies to share data with other government partners, unless there are statutory reasons to keep that information private. While the Evidence Act “laid the groundwork for some of that access,” Abraham said, agencies still face challenges with siloed data.

“You can’t legislate culture, but I think you can nudge organizations in a direction, and I think that’s part of what this legislation does,” she added.

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