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Federal Government Needs a Gatekeeper for Data-based Reform

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The government could soon have an agency dedicated to applying statistical analyses to policy-making if a federal advisory committee has its way.

The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, spawned from a bill co-written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was tasked with recommending ways federal agencies can gather and use more data. This week, the commission published its inaugural report outlining first steps, including creating a National Secure Data Service to promote using data while preserving citizens’ privacy.

Privacy laws could end up being the biggest barrier to such an approach, the commission concludes in the report. The federal government has vast amounts of data related to people’s income, health and education—and many other confidential factors. If agencies could access that data, they might be able to better measure the impact of certain policies on specific social problems, but today’s privacy laws limit the federal government from making use of that data.

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“Traditionally, increasing access to confidential data presumed significantly increasing privacy risk,” the report noted. “The Commission rejects that idea.”

The keys, the commission argues, are to create new government positions including a chief evaluation officer who might be responsible for overseeing the secure use of that data and to revise privacy laws to allow federal agencies to examine citizens’ confidential data. The data would be for “exclusively statistical purposes in connection with approved projects.”

An ideal strategy can help agencies “get greater use out of existing data” while providing citizens with “greater transparency on how the data the federal government is actually used,” Ryan said at an event Thursday in Washington unveiling the report. “Taxpayers deserve to know their money is being spent wisely.”

The commission's broad goal is "making sure our policies are aligned with what we actually know works and what doesn’t,” Murray said.  

President Donald Trump should mandate that federal departments collecting certain administrative data should make it available for statistical research, the commission recommended. To protect the individuals whose data is being used, he and Congress should also move to amend the Privacy Act, which provides that people can request records of the information the government collects on them, and the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act, which outlines specific ways in which statistical data may be used and shared, they added. Those modifications would require agencies to more stringently assess any data being publicly released to ensure there’s no risk to individuals.

And in some cases, Congress and the president should review any statutes limiting the use of administrative data to make sure those protections are necessary and don’t preclude a deep-dive into certain data sets that could be beneficial for policy-making, the report said.

The report is notably agnostic in which policy areas could be the first priority for evidence-based decision-making.

Murray and Ryan are working on a new bill that would codify some of these recommendations, they said.

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