Policymakers face many demands from constituents, budgetary processes, and their commitment to providing good services for the American people. This last concern is made easier when policymakers have access to reliable information to guide their decisions. But access to data and the ability to turn those data into evidence to inform decisions can be hampered by legal restrictions on access to sensitive data, institutional constraints, and the availability of resources.
In 2016, Congress and the president established the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking and charged it with developing a strategy for addressing these barriers. During the commission’s fact-finding efforts, it launched a survey of agencies and units across the federal government to better understand existing barriers to data access and use. The data collected in the survey then provided initial evidence that the commission considered in making its recommendations.
Extended analysis of the commission survey confirms much of what the commission concluded in its final report, validating identified legal and regulatory barriers to using data. The extended analysis also leads to new findings:
Federal offices perceive that their roles in evidence-building activities are in niches and largely do not perceive their data collection as for a broad range of purposes like evaluation that would require better coordination across an agency.
Units within federal agencies exhibit wide variation in their capacity for data sharing and linkage.
Challenges to using data for evidence building are distributed across virtually every policy domain. Respondents identify federal tax information as especially difficult to access and use.
Despite some offices reportedly lacking resources to conduct evidence-building activities, it is still quite common for offices to conduct at least some data sharing and linking. However, agencies still indicate substantial gaps in developing metadata, sharing with third parties, conducting disclosure reviews, and engaging in disclosure avoidance protocols to protect data. Statistical agencies were by far better positioned for this work than other agencies.
While the commission’s survey was conducted in 2017, the issues identified through an extended analysis of the survey data are likely still relevant, as little policy change has occurred since the survey to wholly address the identified issues.
Collectively these findings offer relevant insights for development of the commission’s recommended National Secure Data Service to fill identified capacity gaps as a shared service center for federal agencies. There are many activities already underway to analyze, link, and use data for evidence-building activities, in addition to other purposes. These survey results suggest that government needs to improve capacity to engage in this work, with better abilities and an organizational infrastructure and legal framework that supports securely accessing and analyzing data.