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White House Roundtable Highlights Challenges and Successes for Government Data Uses

By Nick Hart

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Bipartisan Policy Center participated in a roundtable convened at the White House on May 23 to discuss how government can better use its data to support government operations and enhance the American public’s quality of life. Participants included a broad cross section of government, non-profit, and private sector experts involved in collecting, sharing, and using data for serving customers and supporting agency missions.

The event offered an opportunity for feedback about potential actions the Trump administration can take under the new President’s Management Agenda for improving government effectiveness, specifically in achieving a goal to use data as a strategic asset. It was convened under the Chatham House rule, meaning the discussion cannot be attributed to individuals or organizations. Consistent with the rule, here are my key takeaways that can help inform how the administration moves forward:

Privacy and Confidentiality Protections Must Be a Priority

With a framing around the President’s Management Agenda, the event began with a discussion about how data offer an immense potential to strengthen the economy and improve government transparency, but this all needs to be done while balancing objectives with privacy and confidentiality concerns. Increasingly as more data are collected and managed by government and the private sector, the risks associated with mishandling or misusing data must be met with strong protections.

The event offered an opportunity for feedback about potential actions the Trump administration can take under the new President’s Management Agenda for improving government effectiveness.

BPC’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative is especially attuned to encouraging strong privacy protections as the volume and accessibility of data change over time. We are encouraging further research on emerging technologies that can help improve privacy protections, including by hosting public events that encourage greater awareness about the opportunities of emerging approaches. 

In making more data available for public or research use, government must be mindful of avoiding inadvertent disclosures of individual or business identities, legal and civil. I observed this privacy and security theme clearly throughout the day: government’s dissemination and use of best practices must remain a priority to ensure government data do not disclose identities and that systems are protected. 

Challenges Facing Use of Government Data are Many, But Known and Solvable

Event organizers divided roundtable participants into groups to discuss key challenges facing government’s uses of data. Across the seven groups – covering geospatial, science and innovation, business and entrepreneurship, health, social services, education and workforce, and state and local government – clear themes emerged on challenges.

Many in the room cited facing legal constraints for access and use of data, limits in funding and staff availability to execute initiatives, and the absence of long-term leadership and vision from senior government officials. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly all of the challenges were also identified in 2017 by the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which was charged with studying issues facing government in better use of data to generate evidence about government programs. That commission developed 22 recommendations to address these challenges that BPC is encouraging executive branch agencies to implement. Specifically, BPC’s work has involved collaborating with agencies, non-profits, businesses, and researchers on encouraging adoption of appropriate strategies that align with the commission’s recommendations to improve how data are securely used to make government work better.

Countless Success Stories Exist with Lessons for Future Initiatives

At the White House event, it was interesting to hear about the success stories where government has overcome the barriers to not just facilitate better use of data, but also to achieve real and meaningful benefits for the American public.

My favorite example was a joint project between the Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and the Food and Nutrition Service. The Next Generation Data Platform created through the partnership has revolutionized the federal government’s and state governments’ ability to understand who participates in food assistance programs and how that participation affects outcomes. Over a course of a decade of development, partnerships between federal agencies using data voluntarily provided by states have resulted in meaningful information provided back to states. Those data are used to inform program operations, improve statistical survey methods by the Census Bureau, and help lower the cost of implementing the 2020 Census.

What made the project a success? Based on the discussion there seemed to be four key features: there was clear leadership from senior government officials, the funding and staff were available to support the development and operation, clear legal authorities enabled interagency cooperation, and states voluntarily participated because they received a valuable product in return.

We need more success stories to highlight when and how data are meaningfully used. This is especially the case when different agencies or levels of government willingly contribute to developing new insights that lead to actual policy changes. BPC is beginning an effort to increasingly share these examples that showcase the value of using data.

Solutions are Available to Many Challenges, and Progress is Possible

The example of the food assistance data platform is one of the many cases that emerged throughout the White House roundtable discussions where government is using data well. In my view, this suggests that while there are many known and well-documented challenges for government using data moving forward, there are also successes that can be celebrated and used as project models in the future. Perhaps more importantly, the success stories suggest there are also viable solutions for making progress in how government data are used, which will ultimately help drive economic improvements and enhancements for the American public’s quality of life.

There are also cases where Congress has started to intervene by acknowledging basic coordination on data management can minimize challenges. For example, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (H.R. 4174) was offered as a bipartisan piece of legislation to begin addressing challenges around data coordination and use, which has been endorsed by BPC Action and the co-chairs of BPC’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative.

Next Steps

I was pleased at the conclusion of the roundtable to provide direct feedback to five senior government officials leading the development of the administration’s data strategy. When the administration releases its first updates about the President’s Management Agenda and its data strategy on June 15, 2018, we will know whether the advice was heeded.

KEYWORDS: DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING INITIATIVE, FOUNDATIONS FOR EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING ACT, PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU