Evidence-based policy bill passage sets stage for upcoming federal data strategy

The new law requires agencies to appoint a chief evaluation officer, whose job will involve asking key questions about the effectiveness of agency programs, and...

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Stakeholders and former government officials who laid the groundwork for the passage of a landmark data transparency bill say the new law will help pave the way for a broader federal data strategy the Trump administration expects to roll out in the coming weeks.

President Donald Trump on Jan. 14 signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. The bill also contains the OPEN Government Data Act, which requires all non-sensitive government data to be made available in open and machine-readable formats by default.

The bill package stems from more than 20 recommendations the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking made in its September 2017 report.

Katharine Abraham, a former chairwoman of the commission and a current co-chair of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative, said the new law takes some “very important first steps” to putting the commission recommendations into practice.

“What it’s really about is outlining some core expectations for activities that should be a routine part of what the government does in managing its policies and programs,” Abraham said in a Jan. 16 conference call organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Data & evidence workforce changes

The new law requires agencies to appoint a chief evaluation officer, whose job will involve asking key questions about the effectiveness of agency programs, and finding ways to measure their effectiveness.

“Those are folks that collectively will provide leadership for managing data, and then making data useful and used to inform policy,” Nick Hart, the director of BPC’s Evidence Project, said in a Jan. 15 interview.

Agencies will also have to appoint chief data officers to oversee their inventory of data and determine how best to share that data out to the public. A handful of agencies — including the Defense Department, Air Force, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — already have chief data officers.

Robert Shea, a commission member and former Office of Management and Budget executive under the George W. Bush administration, said some agencies may have to make some new hires to get a chief data officer with skills required under the law.

“I think some agencies are pretty mature in this regard, and have good, skilled and effective leaders in place, in a position like that. Others are a little bit further behind and will need to look outside to get that capability in-house,” Shea said in an interview Friday.

Within the next six months, the Office of Personnel Management must create a new job series for program evaluation officials.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has assembled more than 50 data fellows from various agencies who spend about a quarter of their time developing a federal data strategy.

“Their strategy is going to go a long way toward implementing specific provisions in the law,” Ted McCann, a BPC fellow and former policy adviser to former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said during the conference call.

Nancy Potok, the federal chief statistician and one of the co-leads on the federal data strategy, also serves as a member of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

“I think you’ll see a lot of the principles and recommendations of the commission embedded in that [federal data] strategy,” Shea said. “That is, that government ought to be sharing data to the extent possible, so long as they can do it securely to accelerate and reduce the cost of evaluations of programs.”

OMB expects to release a one-year draft action plan for the data strategy this month.

Federal data strategy update amid shutdown

A senior administration official on Jan. 18 said the partial government shutdown may have an impact on some governmentwide projects, but couldn’t specify whether the federal data strategy would be among them.

“The President’s Management Agenda quarterly goals, such as the Federal Data Strategy, are funded through multiple vehicles, so some goals may be unaffected by the lapse while others may in fact be affected,” the official wrote in an email.

The PMA lists data as a resource as one of its cross-agency priority goals.

Data.gov, government’s clearinghouse for public data, has ceased operations for the duration of the shutdown.

Last Thursday, Regulations.gov, the online portal where the public can submit comments to proposed agency rules, posted shifting explanations for a temporary outage.

The website first stated it was “not operational due to a lapse in funding,” and would remain down for the remainder of the shutdown. Later in the day, the website displayed an error page stating that “work is currently underway to restore full services.”

Regulations.gov has since resumed normal operations.

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