The government has a long way to go before it’s good with the DATA Act

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A look at four selected agencies — some large, some small — shows the government has work to do in order to fulfill the aims of the DATA Act. One reason is the White House has failed to issue detailed agency guidance as the 2018 law requires. Michelle Sager, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk about all of this.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Michelle, good to have you back.

Michelle Sager: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Tom Temin: And you looked at this, and I guess the question of, we’ll let’s start at the beginning, give us an overview of what the DATA Act actually requires of federal agencies.

Michelle Sager: Definitely. And so the this particular data act is called the OPEN Government Data Act. The OPEN is an acronym that stands for Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary. And it’s the latest and an evolution of a couple of different statutes requiring agencies to take a lot of actions, all the details are in the record. But the crux of this particular report is that it requires agencies to publish information as open data by default, as well as to develop and maintain what are called comprehensive data inventories. Or if you think of kind of libraries of all the data that agencies have available to make that available on a public facing website. And then it also requires agencies to engage with the public about how the public is using the data assets, and to understand also how non-government users are using the data that are provided and are publicly available. And then given just the scope this across the entire federal government to also prioritize data for disclosure, and determine when they’re going to make different sets of data available, and then expand the use of public data assets by having things such as challenges or competition that could then further enhance the value from making the data available.

Tom Temin: It all sounds well and good, but as you point out in your report, the detailed guidance —because these things always come down to detailed guidance and sometimes even rule making, but in this case guidance — from the White House or the Office of Management and Budget, and they haven’t done that yet, have they?

Michelle Sager: No, they have not. OMB was required to provide guidance to agencies on exactly what they’re supposed to do and how they should go about doing that in July of 2019 for the first guidance, and then to have additional guidance available in October of 2020. So we of course talked to OMB during the course of this report. And we know that a draft of the guidance was available about a year ago. And OMB reported to us that given the challenges of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic environment, as well as having a new administration in place, they are continuing to work on that guidance. So we expect that that will be issued at some point, but we were not able to obtain a date when that will become available. So absent that, agencies don’t know exactly what they’re going to be required to do until that guidance is issued.

Tom Temin: And is the guidance designed to help them decide which particular sets of data, because I imagine there might be some classified or sensitive data, they can’t put everything online so as part of the guidance, to make sure that they know exactly what they can put online?

Michelle Sager: That is absolutely part of it. So although the general requirement is to make data open by default, there are certainly national security considerations that are part of the equation and that agencies have a need for decision rules in determining what data to post. And then in addition, there are concerns about personally identifiable information and privacy considerations that also need to be taken into account as agencies think about making data open by default.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Michelle Sager. She’s director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. And nevertheless, some agencies have been posting data and trying to get with the DATA Act. And you looked at AmeriCorps for a relatively small outfit, but also the Departments of Justice and State and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. So really running the gamut almost of agency sizes. Why those four did you choose to look at?

Michelle Sager: Great question. And our intent in selecting agencies was really to kind of take the pulse of what’s happening. There is a lot happening even though the guidance has not been issued. Agencies are taking action to make sure that they comply with their own requirements in the OPEN Data Act. So we selected a non generalizable sample of four agencies and our intention was to provide some insight on what’s happening, and how agencies are progressing to developing these comprehensive data inventories, as well as the extent to which agencies submit their own statutory requirements. So we were looking for agencies that are members of the Chief Data Officers Council, agencies that included both statistical and non-statistical agencies, and then, as you mentioned, both small and large agencies, including some that were CFO — chief financial officers — Act agencies, and those that are not CFO agencies.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned the chief data officers, which every agency is supposed to have. And by the way, do the CDOs have a role in this whole process of compliance, of picking what data and then making sure it gets posted?

Michelle Sager: So the CBO Council is continuing to meet. And they are working with the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the General Services Administration that hosts the website, to talk with agencies about their strategies for meeting these requirements. And agencies are moving towards thinking about enterprise-wide data strategies, as they’re pulling all of the sub agencies and components together to make their data publicly available. The CDO Council is certainly central to that, and is working with agencies to post data and to think about the decision rules that are in place as agencies are moving forward.

Tom Temin: And at those four agencies, what did you find? Are they pretty good at this, or do they have a long way to go?

Michelle Sager: So we found at the end of the day that agencies have developed data inventories, some agencies started doing a version of this back in 2006. So it definitely continues to evolve. And if you click on data.gov, you will see that right now, there are more than 330,000 data sets that are available at that website. But agencies also reported that there are some challenges as they don’t have that guidance from OMB. They are doing the best they can to anticipate what that guidance might look like with regard to what they have to post and how they have to post it. And then in addition, as I mentioned, there are these requirements for agencies to engage with the public. And there were some inconsistencies and how agencies are going about that.

Tom Temin: How do they engage with the public, other than having a link on their website?

Michelle Sager: Well that’s one way — certainly a pretty easy way — for agencies to engage with the public, just by making some kind of resource available, whether it’s a webform or a link to an email, so that as the public is searching for information, they can connect with a human being somewhere within the specific agency. And then also on data.gov, there are ways that the public can connect with any agency. And so that’s one way but other ways are possible, such as working with users to understand what they need, how they value the data, and what they would find useful, as they’re looking at the information and using it for their own purposes.

Tom Temin: Because agency websites are all over the place with respect to what they present at the homepage, that some of them are all links according to issues, some of them are links according to the bureaus and programs that they have, and some are just trying to be consumer type sites. And so you really don’t get the same user experience from site to site. I imagine that’s one of the challenges. Where do you stick the data accessibility on all of these possibilities?

Michelle Sager: Absolutely. I mean, the the scope of actually complying with this act is really vast. When you think about all of the federal agencies, there are 85 agencies that currently have a chief data officer, and they represent every possible configuration of data that exists across the federal government. So it’s a huge undertaking, it’s easier said than done, but to the extent that agencies can learn from each other and leverage their different approaches to doing so, having that guidance available, so that agencies can be more efficient in their approaches to making data available, would definitely facilitate progress.

Tom Temin: And a couple of agencies you did not check into, like NIH or CDC come to mind — the health-related agencies, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — they have just petabytes of data, tons and tons of data, research data. I imagine they have probably the biggest challenges of all.

Michelle Sager: You’re right that those agencies are very important. And as we continue to exist in this pandemic environment, we see illustrations of that every day. The use of data for a whole host of purposes, whether it’s following the money and seeing which agencies are receiving federal dollars, or knowing about vaccines and development of vaccines and what the current requirements are, what the current guidance is. So there are so many uses of these kinds of data and the current environment continues to illustrate the many, many ways that this really makes a difference.

Tom Temin: Alright, so getting back to AmeriCorps, the Justice Department, the State Department and the FDIC, you’ve got different recommendations, but there’s quite a list of them — 10, I think. What do they generally urge these agencies to do?

Michelle Sager: You’re right, we do have 10 recommendations. There’s something for each agency in this report. And the first recommendation really gets at the guidance so that OMB is issue the guidance on making data open by default. And then in addition to that, we made recommendations to each of the four agencies that really get at the act’s public engagement requirements. So providing opportunities for the public to request data be prioritized for disclosure, and then helping the public as they’re expanding the use of their data assets. And then also, as I mentioned, making sure that they meet the requirement to have challenges or competitions so that they can create additional value from the public data that does exist.

Tom Temin: So in general, a long way to go here.

Michelle Sager: There is a long way to go. There has been tremendous progress and the Chief Data Officers Council does exist and they continue to meet. There is a dashboard where you can see a version of what currently exists and if that is expanded to include all agencies that are subject to the OPEN Data Act that would provide the public with additional information on where we are and what currently exists.

Tom Temin: Michelle Sager is director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michelle Sager: Thank you so much.

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