Next 10 years of federal data decision-making outlined in WH strategy

After a year of cogitation, the Trump administration released its Federal Data Strategy recently — on paper, no less. But it’s filled with important information for the next decade of digital federal government.

That’s according to Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition, who said the strategy makes several references to the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which was signed into law on Jan. 14, 2019. He said the administration was smart to develop the strategy as a 10-year plan.

“And this will fundamentally change the way government uses data because it establishes new expectations, new legal authorities that encourage everything from data sharing to a requirement to have chief data officers across the federal landscape,” Hart said on Federal Monthly Insights — Data Analytics Month. “So every agency now has to have a person who is specifically tapped as a senior leader to think about data governance, how we’re actually managing the quality of the information that we’re collecting from the American public.”

Unlike the President’s Management Agenda, the Federal Data Strategy is thinking more long-term than setting, say six-month to year-long goals. It sends the message that agencies know these issues will take time to correct, and that constantly changing direction will not result in more accessible or useful data.

Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition, talks to Tom Temin on the Federal Drive.

“Some federal agencies are conducting surveys, some are collecting data through the course of just operating programs. And in other cases, they’re actually collecting information by maybe purchasing data from the private sector or even leaning on other federal agencies that are collecting information that’s relevant for them,” Hart said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “And to the extent possible, we want to ensure the burden on the American public is as low as possible to analyze this information and ultimately use it.”

The strategy contains what’s referred to as a “data decision tree,” which outlines the questions agencies should be asking themselves. These include self-reflections such as, “Do I have the data I need or not? If I do, fine; if I don’t, where do I get it?” Is the data something the agency can collect itself or will it need another agency to provide the data? And would there be statutory limitations on collecting another agency’s data?

Hart said the decision tree is part of a bigger suite of actions in the strategy, telling agencies to figure out how their data is organized.

“We don’t have comprehensive inventories of the data that the federal government has today,” he said. “So agencies are going to be developing those over the next 12 months.”

The first year will involve increased planning around how to apply artificial intelligence, and the Office of Management and Budget will stand up a Chief Data Officers Council to establish a community of practice across all of the studios that are now available governmentwide.

“I mentioned that agencies will be developing data inventories; they’re also going to be making what are called open data plans. And so the goal here is to have a specific conversation across agencies of how we make more information publicly accessible, the government’s already collecting,” he said. “And they’ll also have to figure out how to prioritize the data that they’re making available.”

Hart cautioned not to expect results overnight — agencies have resource limitations.

“We know some agencies will need to improve data literacy and the training of their staff so that staff have the right skills to not just make information available and manage it appropriately, but also protect confidentiality and ensure the privacy protections are as strong as possible,” he said.

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