Nonprofit’s new Center for Data Driven Policy tries to forecast impacts

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The nonprofit Mitre Corporation this week launched what it calls a Center for Data Driven Policy. To explain what that is and how the center can help, Mitre’s Vice President for Strategic Engagement and Partnership James Cook, and its Director of Engagements and Partnerships Dave Powner, spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Powner, Mr. Cook — good to have you both on.

James Cook: Good morning, Tom. Thanks for having us.

Tom Temin: Let’s talk about the term here, data driven policy. I know there’s laws about data driven evidence based policymaking and all of this. But what actually is it? Jim, why don’t we start with you?

James Cook: Sure. Thanks Tom. Well, that is one aspect of it, you referencing the Evidence Based Policy Act. But what we mean when we talk about data driven policy is really using statistics, metrics, evidence — evidence that could come in the form of models, data driven models could also come in the form of results from simulations and experiments. But using that evidence and that data to really understand what’s happening and measure the implications of potential policy decisions before they’re made.

Tom Temin: And Dave from your days at GAO, you know well that there is policy, and then there’s policy. I mean, there’s the United States is policy toward space and toward China, and toward all these kinds of things. Then there’s the policy that an agency devices for the best way to distribute, say benefits, or to deliver some very specific mission that is enabled by law. So policy can be global, and it can be very localized. What do you see the center directing its policy advice towards?

Dave Powner: Yes. So Tom, thanks for having us. Well so first of all, a couple things. One is, if you look at MITRE, we run federally funded R&D centers and have public private partnerships. So we have a lot of technical expertise, independent research, Jim mentioned our modeling and simulation capability. So we want to use all that to inform policymakers and those folks on the Hill, folks within the Executive Office of the President. So areas, for instance, one area that you and Jason Miller cover a lot, IT modernization, is an area that we have a lot of experience and we would like to see the policymaking process. But then there’s other areas like payment integrity, election integrity, ethics, ethical use of AI, those are the types of things that we feel like we at MITRE with our data and experience can really add to and inform the policymakers.

Tom Temin: And let’s take an example, say of improper payments. And every year, there’s a report out on improper payments, and they’re $125, $130 billion a year. And most of them are attributed to Health and Human Services through CMS, in Medicare, Medicaid fraud is probably the single largest component of that. Now, CMS has a program to drive that down. And they do a lot of increasing amount of data analysis, and modeling and so forth to try to pinpoint where the fraud might be occurring. How can you build on that type of thing? That is to say, are you bringing new algorithms to this? What is it that the center will bring?

James Cook: That’s a great example Tom. I think what the center would bring to complement what CMS and others would do in that instance is to then go one step further to apply the role of simulations and experiments to now look at if I make certain changes to programs, say now what the way I measure eligibility or test eligibility, what impact will that have, will that help reduce errors, reduce the possibility of fraud, and potentially drive down that number? So it really is taking that additional step beyond the analytics that helps you understand what’s occurring today, to now model and simulate and predict what might occur if you take certain steps both in terms of the way you process, but also the policies that govern the decision making process that’s in place today.

Tom Temin: This sounds like it plays in with the drive toward acquiring Chief Data Officers and data analysts that the agencies are hiring, a lot of them now have chief data scientists, and their first job is knowing what data you need, and what the data might be useful for in what problems someone wants to solve. So do you anticipate dealing a lot with the CDOs and their staffs?

James Cook: I think that would be a certainly a real possibility. I think in many instances, what we do through the work that we do that Dave described is actually experiment with what other types of data might be useful or beneficial. That may be data that the government doesn’t have today. But if they were to have it, would that make a material difference in the outcome?

Tom Temin: Yeah, that’s a big issue I think for a lot of agencies doing identity management, doing verifications and so forth, is the use of external data sources that the government may not have, but which are legal and protect privacy and can been used in that way. You see that as a growing area of the data mixture that agencies use?

Dave Powner: Yes. So Tom, clearly when you look at the interaction with Chief Data officers and the use of data, that’s going to be very important. And what we want to do through the Center for Data Driven Policy too is really to work in a collabbrative way, and in many ways to that’s also not only working with federal agencies, but in a big way it’s working with the various policy influencer groups around town, the NAPAs, the Partnership for Public Service. A good example is the Bipartisan Policy Center recently partnered with Will Hurd and Robin Kelly, and they issued a series of white papers that culminated in a congressional resolution for AI. They formed an expert panel of folks who had experience in the artificial intelligence area, and we actually participated in that and contributed back effort. So we feel like we have a lot to offer to the equation, but we also want to work in a collaborative way with the other policy influencer groups because the collection of data and experience, we think we can combine that, that’s for the best of policymaking.

Tom Temin: And Will Hurd is gonna need some work come January 3, you might be able to hire him in the center. And just tell us how the center will work. Is it they dedicated staff within MITRE and are you looking for certain types of people to build it out? How does that all work?

James Cook: Well, Tom we’re starting with a small dedicated staff. Dave is going to lead the center, and he’ll have a small team dedicated to helping to run the center. But largely what we’re doing is leveraging people throughout MITRE and the work that they do throughout our seven FFRDCs, the labs, and the platforms that we operate in our research program. So very much they’re all going to be part of the work of the center, our job is to leverage them and bring them in and get them engaged in activities that are relevant to the policymakers, but also, as Dave mentioned, the broader policy community, including the nonprofit’s and others that work in the space. So we’ll be leveraging a large number of people throughout the company to help do that.

Tom Temin: And will you issue regular types of output like white papers and discovery documents? And or both? Will you also work with federal agencies on specific problems they might have them come to you to help solve?

James Cook: We see it as a combination of all of the above. We are today and we will be releasing papers. In fact, in coincidental with the launch event, there’ll be several papers that are going to be released later this week. And we see that being an ongoing process. We will be hosting events. We will also be issuing grants, research grants on policy related topics to universities and others. And we will be participating we believe in events, and we hope, events and activities that are conducted and hosted by others as well by bringing some of the MITRE expertise to the table. Dave just mentioned a great example of that, the work with the Bipartisan Policy Center on ethical AI is an activity that we’ve been participating in.

Tom Temin: And would you say that in the grand scheme of things, this idea is really growing on what kinds of data one needs to solve problems and how to curate that data?

Dave Powner: Absolutely. And I think, too, when you look at what we’re trying to do here, we already do this, Jim’s team, we already partner with the policymakers and inform them, not only in Congress, but at OMB and OSTP. And what we really want to do with this approach, our goal with the center is to really broaden and strengthen our approach to the policy decisions. And so it’s something that we have some experience in, and we’re just looking to broaden that and strengthen that.

Tom Temin: And the whole thing kicks off tomorrow, what’s going to happen?

James Cook: That’s correct. We’re hosting an event where we are going to have people invited to participate from the government, from a number of organizations around town that Dave has mentioned, and some members of Congress and their staffs to really help understand how we can help them we see this policy center as being a resource to the policy community. We’re nonpartisan, we’re non-profit — and we’re operating in the public interest. And we think and a big part of that public interest role is openly sharing what we know, what we’ve discovered, and what we’ve learned through our research in our work. And so many of the folks who are coming to the launch event know us, but some are new to us, and new to what we’re doing. And so we’re planning on having a discussion with them later on Thursday, to explain a little bit more about the intent of the center and begin a dialogue on how the center can be beneficial to them.

Dave Powner: And Tom, if I could add, with that event too, we are going to have Will Hurd and Robin Kelly, they’re going to talk a little bit about their AI congressional resolution, but they’re also going to talk about where they see IT modernization and other legislation going in the future. A good example, too, we do have a panel that’s going to be a policy discussion on ethical AI that’s going to be moderated by Dan Chenok with the IBM Center for the Business of Government. And we’re going to have a couple panel members one is the Mignon Clyburn , former FCC commissioner, and she’s also a commissioner on the National Security Commission on AI. And then we have Chuck Howell from MITRE, who actually he supports both the BPC effort on AI as well as the National Security Commission. So we’re pretty excited about having those two members of Congress and then having this pretty powerful panel on ethical AI and we’re anxious to hear what they have to say.

Tom Temin: Dave Powner is now the director for the Center for Data Driven Policy at the MITRE Corporation. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dave Powner: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Temin: And James Cook is the Vice President and Director of strategic engagement and partnerships at MITRE. Thank you as well.

James Cook: Thank you for having us, Tom.

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