Future Data Policy Embedded in a 2017 Report

Published: October 09, 2019

Big DataPolicy and Legislation

Former panel members are calling on key recommendations listed in the 2017 report by the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking to be used in future data policy and legislation.

Before the passage of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (Evidence Act) and formation of the Federal Data Strategy and its associated (and pending!) action plan, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking handed a 138 page report full of recommendations to the President and Congress in September 2017. The Promise of Evidence-Based Policymaking seeks to improve the “Federal government’s evidence-building systems and capabilities.” Over the course of a year, the commission researched and collected input to culminate a strategy that would enhance policymaking efforts.  As a result, 22 recommendations were identified surrounding three subsets: (1) how the Federal government can provide the infrastructure for secure access to data, (2) the mechanisms to improve privacy protections and transparency about the uses of data for evidence building, and (3) the institutional capacity to support evidence building.

Some of the report’s recommendations have made it into legislation. For instance, the report calls for the establishment of Chief Evaluation Officers at agencies to coordinate policy release and learning agendas for each department to address policymakers’ questions. The Evidence Act mirrors these, calling for evaluation officers to “advise on statistical policy, techniques, and procedures” and the construction of learning agendas carving out the priorities for evidence building.

Moreover, the 2017 report recommends OMB facilitate a cross-agency process to “consider how a greater commitment to foundational information policy responsibilities can be achieved.” OMB’s memo to implement the Evidence Act not only calls for Chief Data, Evaluation and Statistical Officer Councils, but also for a combination of all to form a Data Government Body. The Data Government Body willset and enforce priorities for managing data as a strategic asset to support the agency in meeting its mission and, importantly, answering the priority questions laid out in the agency Learning Agenda.”

Nonetheless, the report’s authors are calling for the implementation of additional recommendations presented in the Evidence-Based Policymaking report.

A large segment of the report is dedicated to providing access to statistical data for evidence building while ensuring the privacy and transparency of that data. Specifically referring to 11 federal departments with statistical agencies within them, the commission recommends the formation of a National Secure Data service to facilitate a balance between the access and security of government data. In fact, the report states that “the Commission’s recommendations for improved data access and strong privacy protections rely heavily on the establishment of the National Secure Data Service.”

Outlined as a separate entity within the Department of Commerce, the National Secure Data Service (NSDS) would have the capacity to temporarily link existing data that it receives and provide secure access for that data for statistical purposes within approved projects. The NDS would not be considered a data clearinghouse or warehouse but rather a service. The report also makes the following recommendations around the NSDS, including:

  • Stringent privacy qualifications required to acquire and combine the data
  • Adoption of privacy-enhancing technologies to keep the data secure, including a “state-of-the-art database, cryptography, privacy-preserving, and privacy-enhancing technologies.”
  • A transparency and accountability portal for evidence-building activities to notify the public how confidential data is used for evidence building.
  • A searchable inventory of approved projects using confidential data with ongoing auditing of compliance with privacy and confidentiality rules.

Neither the Evidence Act nor the OMB memo mention the National Secure Data Service nor has it caught Congressional attention, yet the NSDS’ purpose is still relevant. As the amount of data increases at federal departments, the risk of linking up data out of statistical agencies releases also grows.

As the Federal News Network article points out, OMB is standing up an Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building, where hopefully the concept of the National Secure Data Service is revisited. If so, we may see more data policies down the line addressing data security and transparency.