Advisory panel outlines how agencies can meet ‘open data by default’ goal

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking that Congress passed in 2019 launched a governmentwide effort to make federal data more useful for agencies and the customers they serve.

More than two years after that bill became law, a federal advisory committee tells lawmakers and the Biden administration that more action is needed to meet the goals of the legislation, which is now more commonly known as the Evidence Act.

The Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building (ACDEB), in its first annual report to the Office of Management and Budget, urges the Biden administration to stand up a National Secure Data Service (NSDS) that would give trusted researchers a “front door for access to sensitive or restricted data.”

The committee says it’s exploring how the Biden administration could launch such a data service under current law, but concludes Congress may need to pass additional legislation to ensure a successful rollout.

The report, released Oct. 29, finds the NSDS could help statistical agencies and outside researchers work better together to understand the impact of COVID-19 programs or inequalities in who benefits most from federal programs.

“With the public’s current interest in addressing disparities and reducing inequities in programs and policies, a data service could support key descriptive analytics and evaluations relevant to this priority,” the committee states in its final report.

As a proof of concept, the committee recommends OMB and the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy launch a pilot program that demonstrates the value of streamlined data-sharing across agencies.

A data service, the committee suggests, could help link data sets on income, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation with existing federal data assets, rather than collect some of these sensitive data elements from the public.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, sees improvements in federal data as a necessary step to deliver on its goal of addressing inequalities in public-facing services.

The committee, in its final report, is not the first organization of its kind to make these recommendations. The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, launched by the Obama administration in 2016, suggested authorizing a National Secure Data Service as one of its 22 final recommendations.

Lawmakers pulled together about half of the commission’s recommendations to form the basis of what became the Evidence Act, but didn’t include any provision authorizing the data service.

Four years after the commission issued its final recommendations, the ACDEB report finds the need for a National Secure Data Service “has only increased.”

“Better and more useful data are central to meeting the challenges the nation faces today, from battling a pandemic and recovering from its effects, to identifying and addressing inequities that impede collective success,” its report states.

Plans to create a secure data service within the National Science Foundation have gained momentum in Congress.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) introduced the National Secure Data Service Act in May, which lawmakers then folded into the NSF for the Future Act. The House passed the reauthorization bill in June, but the legislation has yet to move ahead in the Senate.

The ACDEB report finds a secure data service would help standardize how a “high decentralized” network of more than 100 statistical agencies or their subcomponents interact with the research community.

The report also sees a secure data service as an opportunity to use administrative data from thousands of state and local governments for evidence-based policymaking purposes.

“Often, these data are gathered through federally funded or run programs and thus are, in part, being shared with the federal government today; however, the power of administrative data for evidence building has not yet been realized,” the report states.

A newly created NSDS, however, would be able to build on top of progress already made by the 13 agencies responsible for most of the federal government’s statistical infrastructure

The report finds the Evidence Act “strengthened these statistical agencies as the trusted intermediaries between the data stewards and subjects, on the one hand, and the data users, on the other.”

The Evidence Act requires these agencies to streamline authorized researchers’ access to government data sets, and would lay a foundation for the National Secure Data Service, if authorized.

“The data service will be an important component of the broader evidence-building ecosystem and will build on the framework established in the Evidence Act,” the report states.

The report recommends OMB should take “immediate steps” to issue additional guidance and regulations outlined under the Evidence Act, including how agencies should implement the “open data by default” and data inventory portions of the legislation.

The report also recommends that OMB should designate a full-time chief statistician. Nancy Potok served as the last permanent chief statistician but left in January 2020. Dominic Mancini now serves as the acting federal chief statistician.

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