How federal statistical agencies can implement open data policies
By Nidhisha Philip
Open government data — data released by federal agencies for analysis and reuse — is an important resource for state and local governments, the private sector, researchers, and civil society. 2019 was a banner year for federal open data policy: The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (the “Evidence Act”) became law, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released the 2020 Federal Data Strategy Action Plan. Both set out groundbreaking requirements for federal agencies to make their data more accessible and usable for a wide variety of applications.
At the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE), a nonprofit dedicated to maximizing the value of open government data, we are excited to work with federal agencies as they begin to implement the Federal Data Strategy and Evidence Act this year. In our work with federal agencies over the last five years, we have learned that there are significant differences among agencies with respect to their capacity and engagement on issues of data use and governance.
The new federal policies have a particular impact on statistical agencies, whose main function has been the generation, management, and dissemination of statistical data. Last fall, CODE facilitated a workshop with one of the 13 principal federal statistical agencies, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). NCSES serves as a clearinghouse for the collection, interpretation, analysis, and dissemination of objective data on the science and engineering enterprise. The workshop, hosted by NCSES, was a mix of expert presentations, including from the U.S. Chief Statistician, and focused brainstorming sessions to explore opportunities that NCSES and other statistical agencies can use in their approach to implementing the Federal Data Strategy and the Evidence Act. CODE has identified several ways in which federal statistical agencies can apply aspects of the Federal Data Strategy and Evidence Act to their programs. This CODE briefing paper provides an overview of the relevant policies and regulations.
The Federal Data Strategy and Evidence Act can be leveraged to help statistical agencies meet the following goals:
Promote learning culture within the agency:
- Statistical agencies should evaluate their existing user engagement strategies and take concrete steps towards incorporating feedback from users. Typically, users of statistical data range from individual researchers to large institutional organizations. Agencies should ensure that there are institutionalized mechanisms for feedback from the users to the survey designers.
- Statistical agencies should support their staff in efforts to explore and improve the integration of administrative data from federal agencies with data from statistical surveys. Title III of the Evidence Act creates a presumption in favor of sharing data at the request of statistical agencies. Staff at these agencies should also be supported with appropriate enforcement mechanisms in order to leverage this opportunity created by law.
Communicate and form new partnerships:
- Statistical agencies should take steps to align their data strategies along with their communication strategies. Given the inherent difficulties in recording narrative information in statistical surveys, agencies should consider alternative methods of communicating the impact of their data including through narrative reports and visualizations.
- Given their long history of generating evidence to inform policy, smaller statistical agencies can play an important role in helping their host federal agency define the learning agenda and think through their data needs.
Improve data protection and governance practices:
- Statistical agencies should work on elevating their existing privacy and security practices into a comprehensive data governance program. They should take steps to train staff on important issues of privacy and security throughout the data lifecycle.
- Statistical agencies should leverage their history of implementing the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act to help their host federal agencies in implementing the Strategy and the Evidence Act.
We at CODE believe that Workshops similar to the one hosted by NCSES can be helpful to other federal agencies working to meet those goals. With the publication of the 2020 Federal Data Strategy Action Plan, agencies have specific timelines and deliverables that they need to comply with in the coming year. In order to effectively implement the goals embodied in the Evidence Act and Strategy, program officers and other staff members will need to agree on ways to promote a learning culture and open data for their agencies. Statistical agencies have a particular challenge and opportunity: Their legacy approaches and systems may need to be updated, but their long history and expertise managing data can enable them to be leaders in this changing, data-driven environment.
Nidhisha Philip is a Research Fellow at the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE), an independent nonprofit organization in Washington, DC whose mission is to maximize the value of open government data for the public good.