Report: Broader data access, stronger security part of improving evidence-based policies

A new report from the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking aims to move data-based public policy from a random occurrence to a routine practice.

The Promise of Evidence-Based Policymaking” report provides a road map for the government on how to use data it’s already collecting, and turn it into a way to evaluate and improve programs.

“We actually focused on the governance of the creation of evidence and its use mostly in agencies,” said Robert Shea, a commission member and a former Office of Management and Budget executive under the President George W. Bush administration. “We think we’ve designed an infrastructure that can establish a routine way of deciding what are the main questions we want asked, how will we go about getting the evidence to answer those questions, and then use that in the decision-making process at agencies.”

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The report is the result of a year-long study, includes 22 recommendations for agencies as well as Congress, and is driven by five guiding principles: privacy, rigor, transparency, humility, and capacity. The commission was created under the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2016, which was jointly sponsored by then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

House Speaker Ryan spoke at a Sept. 7 press conference in Washington, D.C. to recognize the report’s publication. He said senators and representatives need to work together to implement the report’s recommendations “to improve access to data, to improve privacy, and to help expand our capacity to improve programs.”

“It’s about changing our approach so that we can actually change the status quo and improve people’s lives,” Ryan said. “That’s why we’re doing this.”

Murray said lawmakers are working on legislation and “hope to introduce it soon.”

“These initial recommendations … represent important down payments on the three main areas of recommendations: expanding access, modernizing privacy, and strengthening the capacity for evaluation,” Murray said. “The down payment legislation will ensure we make immediate progress while we hear from our constituents and stakeholders — and while we work with the commissioners and committees of jurisdiction on the remaining recommendations.”

Expanding access

When it comes to improving access data and sharing data, the commission recommended the creation of a National Secure Data Service.

“As a state-of-the-art resource for improving government’s capacity to use the data it already collects, the National Secure Data Service will be able to temporarily link existing data and provide secure access to those data for exclusively statistical purposes in connection with approved projects,” the report stated. “The National Secure Data Service [NSDS] will do this without creating a data clearinghouse or warehouse.”

Katharine Abraham, the chairwoman of the commission, said members had thought about a clearinghouse, but rejected the idea “on the grounds that we believed it could raise substantial risks for privacy.”

Instead, the data service would help qualified researchers in and outside the government access the data on an as-needed basis.

“So data would come in, they would be used for a project. When the project is concluded, the linked data file would be destroyed,” Abraham said. “We would not be accumulating a bigger and bigger store of individual data at this service.”

The temporary link would be accessed through “stringent data protection standards,” Abraham said, using state-of-the-art methods “to safely combine data for evidence-building and support the application of cutting-edge privacy protective approaches and technology that could be applied across the government.”

Abraham said this increased access also would require changes to laws to ensure the data could be used by the NSDS.

Modernizing privacy

Despite increased access to data, Abraham said that does not mean privacy has to be sacrificed.

“We think we’ve come up with an approach to expanding access to data that also can improve the protections afforded in terms of privacy and confidentiality,” Abraham said.

One way of doing this is by conducting a comprehensive risk assessment whenever confidential data is being considered for release, Abraham said. Another is by adopting “modern privacy enhancing technologies … and codifying policies for maintaining integrity and objectivity of federal statistics.”

This will also encourage trust in the accuracy of information used by the government for decision-making, Abraham said.

Capacity for evaluation

While expanded access and stronger privacy protections are important, without capacity and administrative flexibility, the volume and quality of evidence won’t improve, Abraham said.

To help with this, the commission recommended departments appoint a chief evaluation officer to help with policy and research, and establishing a senior agency official for data policy who is responsible for coordinating access to data.

“We believe the heads of the existing federal statistical agencies likely would be the right people for this role,” Abraham said. “We recommend that federal departments develop learning agendas to support the generation and use of evidence to address the full range of policymakers questions. We recommend improving coordination governmentwide by directing the Office of Management and Budget to facilitate cross-government coordination, and consider how a greater commitment to foundational information policy responsibilities can be achieved, including through any required consolidation or reorganization at OMB.”

As for the next steps, Commission Co-chair Ron Haskins said the ball is in Congress’ court.

“I think we’re going to get that first bill, but … there are a lot of provisions that are really difficult that are not going to be in that bill,” Haskins said. “So exactly how that shapes up I don’t know. We’re going to push for it, but in the end, it’s members of Congress, especially their staffs, that are really going to shape this.”

Haskins and Abraham are scheduled to testify Sept. 12 at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing.