Agencies a Step Closer to Open Data, Chief Data Officers

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The OPEN Government Data Act, tucked inside the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act, passed the House.

The House on Wednesday passed a bill that would require agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of programs based on data and require agencies to open their data to the public.

The Foundations of Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, a bill co-authored by Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., passed by a voice vote. The bill included a version of Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act originally sponsored in the House by Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, and Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and in the Senate by Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

The OPEN Government Data Act directs agencies to publish their non-sensitive data in a machine-readable format and also requires agencies to hire chief data officers.

“Taxpayers are already paying for this data, so they should be able to use it,” Farenthold said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing new inventions that will come from this important data being public.”

Ryan’s bill, and a companion in the Senate co-authored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, aims to codify some recommendations a White House advisory commission made about ways to use more data internally. In addition to chief data officers, it includes a provision requiring agencies to hire chief evaluation officers to oversee the assessment of internal programs. Not all proposals made it into the bill. For instance, the commission’s suggestion that the federal government establish a National Secure Data Service—tasked with protecting citizens’ privacy and sensitive data during the evaluation process—was left out.

Another version of the OPEN Government Act, which did not include a provision for chief data officers, had been included in the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, but it didn’t make it into the final version that passed today, a Capitol Hill staffer told Nextgov.  

Even once it’s signed into law, the actual implementation of the OPEN Government Data Act, and Ryan’s broader bill, could take months, Robert Shea, a principal at Grant Thornton and former associate director for Administration and Government Performance at the Office of Management and Budget, told Nextgov. OMB would also need to issue guidance about how exactly to implement some of the measures, including what the exact responsibilities of chief evaluation officers would be, said Shea, who also served on the White House Commission for Evidence-Based Policymaking.

Linda Springer, a former OMB controller, Office of Personnel Management head and retired Trump adviser, said the legislation’s focus on having chief data officers may “miss the central point of ensuring that program performance going forward is meeting the expectations” of citizens, she told Nextgov. Instead of evaluating existing programs, they might have greater impact if they examine trends and model out what programs should look like in the future, she explained.

The bill has yet to clear the Senate, and transparency advocacy group the Data Coalition plans to put pressure on Congress to advance it, Executive Director Hudson Hollister told Nextgov.

“What’s most important about this bill is the strong presumption in favor of open licenses, and open format for all the government,” he said, adding standardizing that data, and ensuring that agencies are using similar definitions and categories to store it, will likely be a future challenge.