Is the Federal Data Strategy more than just a piece of paper?

In the view of one business group, the Federal Data Strategy needs a top-to-bottom rethinking. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation says the strategy simply doesn’t serve the needs of a government trying to modernize and digitize. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with Eric Egan, the foundation’s policy fellow.

Interview Transcript:

Tom Temin And let’s just begin with a quick one minute review. What is the federal data strategy? It’s been around a while, and I think it was recently revisited, correct, by the Biden administration.

Eric Egan Revisited might be too strong a word, but yeah, So essentially, it was a Trump administration initiative. The Trump administration had a cross-agency priority to kind of improve how the federal government uses data and kind of accountability and accessibility around data. Part of that capital was the development of a federal data strategy. So the OMB under Trump developed this kind of ten year strategy to cross kind of government strategy to improve how the federal government manages and uses data. And it kind of structured it according to ten foundational principles, and it uses those which can be broken into 40 aspirational practices, kind of best practices, if you will. And then the concept is that every year there is a kind of tactical device and action plan that each federal agency kind of has to adhere to in order to kind of progress the strategy overall.

Tom Temin There is also a data act, and there is also mandates by Congress to act on the part of federal agencies according to data driven decision making. So this is not something from outer space, really?

Eric Egan Absolutely. No, that’s that’s a great point. And part of the Evidence Act and the Open Government Data Act, which are, Open Government Data Act is a part of the Evidence Act, but those both came out in 2018. So the strategy itself is in many ways kind of a way for the federal agencies to kind of adhere and get get those congressionally mandated laws in place. And that’s kind of what one of the biggest shortcomings is. One, a lot of that congressionally mandated guidance that only is supposed to provide to agencies, so namely open data access, what they’re supposed to do. In terms of providing the access to to the public and to stakeholders and then also data standards across other agencies is just not been provided. That’s a law. By law they have to do that. And the strategy itself has certain actions to publish open data and to adhere to those kinds of things. But without the guidance, agencies can’t really comply with this.

Tom Temin Well, could one reason for a lack of guidance be that for the Biden administration, they have a horror movie running in their heads all the time and the name of that movie is “it came from Trump,” which means it’s anathema. So could they be just letting it die a natural death by not issuing any sort of guidance to implement it, do you think?

Eric Egan It could be. But the reason I think maybe not, and that it’s just one of those things where a change in administration and maybe they just didn’t prioritize. But I think the weird thing is, the 2020 action plan was released by Trump, but then the 2021, the last action plan was released, which at this point is a few years ago. That was in the Biden administration and the data strategy itself is is is fairly kind of generic, which is one of the other findings. And it’s what any company or other business would agree are pretty well defined in terms of high level kind of polestar’s for how a mature data organization should look like. So part of it’s like this is really an opportunity for the Biden administration to say like, hey, this is a moving particular mission outcomes from the Trump administration. But it has some good bones here. Why not change this and make it repurpose it for our our own mission outcomes?

Tom Temin Sure. We’re speaking with Eric Egan. He’s a policy fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. And you’re saying that just a quote from the opening of your report, the federal data strategy suffers from a lack of leadership, as we’ve discussed, fails to link its well-defined principles and practices to government wide and agency wide missions or agency level missions. So what should OMB do with this at this point? Can it be fixed and can it be made relevant and actionable?

Eric Egan It can. There’s a few recommendations I include in my report. And one of the things OMB did was create this governance body, this oversight body called the Federal Data Policy Committee. That hasn’t really done anything, but it really should be the OMB body that’s driving a lot of the work around governmentwide data standards and these things that we’re talking about. Getting that body in place, I think is that is a big one. I mean, by law OMB has to provide this guidance around open data and standards. And this seems like a good body to do that. And there’s just,   part of it is just taking the bones of the strategy and just kind of taking it to the next level. So that’s thinking about what are the Biden administration’s priorities so that they have aspirations around using AI, improving customer experience, improving efficiency, and then they have mission outcomes around addressing income and racial inequality. There’s there’s a bunch of things they want to do and better data governance is critical to supporting all of those. So there’s an opportunity to kind of tweak the strategy to support those mission outcomes. And I think one of the other recommendations that Data Foundation also has supported is the creation of a federal CDO. So there is in the same way that we have a federal CIO and a federal CIO council and agency CIOs. OMB has strong leadership for the agency CIOs, but CDOs don’t have that. And they they’re really kind of the CDOs I’ve spoken to are really kind of flailing though, in terms of guidance. I mean, they’re doing a lot of good work at the agency level, but they’re kind of on their own and they and they feel as such, they often they work under the CIOs. So it’s really unclear like where their seat at the table is. They’re dealing with kind of funding and staffing shortage issues which many agency executives are. But there’s an opportunity, especially with a federal CDO, to really put some fire under what OMB has to do and then kind of tweak the the action plan mechanism. You can do this in such a way that works in a federated structure. So you can you can change how the action plans developed, give the agency CDOs more to work with. They can kind of contribute to what that action plan should look like right under their emissions. Yeah.

Tom Temin Now, OMB is itself something of a constrained organization in terms of the number of people it has versus a lot of work it has to do you see lights on late at night sometimes in the old Executive Office building. They have pizza coming in Saturdays and Sundays. You got to give them that. Could that be one of the issues that they just haven’t gotten around to it yet? And would one strategy be to take some of those floundering or confused CDOs from the agencies and task them to some kind of a working group to come up with an action plan for the data strategy?

Eric Egan Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s I think that’s really the way of course. There are there are existing constraints and you’re totally right that that’s likely just it just can’t be prioritized given other things that are working out that morning. But the reality is that data is data governance and use of data in federal government is a huge priority. But one of the they have some of these kind of paper mechanisms in place that if they just kind of evolve, could do quite a quite a bit. Like there’s this notion of a data governance body which is at the agency level. That’s where you have maybe the agency level CDO, working with his business colleagues to make really the action plan their own. So really you have OMB not really having you to do too much being like, here are the kind of governmentwide here’s really where we need to do year to year. There’s an opportunity for you to take that action plan adjust it, change it, make it your own at the agency level so it’s really your action plan. But it aligns with the guidance that comes from OMB. So it’s really just like using the constraint understanding there are constraints, but just be more thoughtful and tactical and in how you approach the strategy overall.

Tom Temin And you mentioned AI a moment ago and that idea that emergence of AI seems to give this some urgency because AI is worthless or worse than worthless, it can be damaging without training with the correct data. And so really the answer to having an AI strategy has got to be backed by a good data strategy. Fair to say?

Eric Egan Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s why, to your earlier point, there should be momentum around this because the Biden administration is working on a national AI strategy that really has to align with an active, up to date, mission oriented federal data strategy. Otherwise, that AI strategy is going nowhere. If agencies have barely know where their data is, and it’s all in different formats. There’s no standards, they don’t know how to share it with one another.

Tom Temin Well, what if they just hired ChatGPT? They dumped the strategy as it stands now in there, see what comes out, and they’re good to go.

Eric Egan I’m sure someone has done that.

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