It’s stakeholder-driven, it’s bipartisan and it’s reasonable.
The information the American public provides to the federal government each year is valued at $143 billion. In other words, each household in the country provides $1,133 worth of data to government, spending an average of 90 hours per year filling out tax forms, responding to surveys, or completing documentation to prove eligibility for services.
Needless to say, our government collects a lot of data, imposing a tremendous burden on the American public. If the American public is going to be burdened to provide this information, shouldn’t the government use it effectively?
A Unique Opportunity with the Federal Data Strategy
The Trump administration recently finalized a plan—the Federal Data Strategy—that aims to improve the federal government’s ability to gather insights from data over the next decade, laying out expectations for every federal agency to develop ethical governance processes, design programs to plan for data use and promote continuous learning and improvements in agencies.
If successful, the Federal Data Strategy will enhance how government agencies organize, prioritize and share information. The plan is unique for government: It’s stakeholder-driven, it’s bipartisan and it’s reasonable.
When the President’s Management Agenda was announced by the Trump administration in 2017, there were signs that the discussion about data was changing. The management plan included a goal unlike the others. That goal did not set out to tackle immediate wins like hiring a certain number of employees or reducing inefficient costs—instead, the goal prioritized the need for government to recognize data as a strategic asset.
The goal itself aimed to change the culture of government to better collect, share and use data. But changing cultures isn’t as simple as writing a strategy or plan, it requires leadership, commitment, and time.
Recognizing the need to change government’s data culture, the Trump administration took the rare step of acknowledging that in the short-term the best course of action was consensus-driven strategic planning. That was the genesis of the Federal Data Strategy.
Achieving a Data-Informed Culture
While the administration was in the process of developing the strategy, Congress passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. This law strengthens certain privacy protections, encourages data accessibility, and establishes new data-related leadership roles in government, such as chief data officers and evaluation officers.
Ironically, the new law passed during the government shutdown last winter. During that period, some government data became less accessible, certain data collection activities were paused, and there are unknown effects on the quality of information. The publication of the strategy itself was delayed by months as a consequence of the government shutdown.
This is precisely why we need a strong, consensus-driven Federal Data Strategy: Government data are too important to the country to falter when elected leaders fail to compromise. Whether determining the weather during the day or using real estate apps on a smartphone to look at houses, government data are pervasive in modern society and our daily lives. The American public relies on government information to make decisions.
In order to succeed in using data strategically, government has much work to do beyond avoiding shutdowns. Much government data is under-analyzed or unused. Creating more useable systems, aligning policy frameworks, training the workforce, and planning for emerging needs are key features of achieving success.
Now that the 10-year vision for the Federal Data Strategy is complete, the White House is in the process of developing a specific set of tasks over the next year. And the White House is asking for the American public to provide written or verbal feedback on the plan.
The Federal Data Strategy is a promising start to recognizing government data as a strategic asset. It presents a cohesive plan. It encourages agencies to work across traditional silos that limit data use. It articulates a realistic strategy.
But it doesn’t cover every priority. It doesn’t even address all the aspects of new data legislation enacted in early 2019. To succeed in its goals and in changing government’s data culture, the Trump Administration must ensure the strategy and specific action items are useful, perceived as beneficial by agencies, and sustain the plan across leadership changes. That’s how government can ensure data are a strategic asset, today and well into the future.
Nick Hart, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of the Data Coalition and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He was previously the policy and research director for the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.