Commission on Data Calls for Comment; Tackles Privacy

Christina Pena
September 16, 2016

The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, the 15-member bi-partisan group of experts charged with conducting a comprehensive examination of data inventory and infrastructure, database security, and statistical protocols related to federal policymaking, has called for public comments to be submitted by November 14, 2016.

The Commission is seeking input on a range of topics - from the use of program and policy evaluation in program design - to what data should be included in a potential U.S. government clearinghouse. For the full list of questions, and instructions for submissions, please see this Federal Register Notice.

WDQC and partner organizations submitted a general set of principles to the Commission earlier in the summer. We also plan to submit recommendations during this round of inquiry. 

The Commission met last week to focus on privacy issues. It brought together experts from federal and state governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations. Commission Co-Chair Ron Haskins set the tone early by contending that privacy is critical to get right or it could ruin the response to the Commission’s anticipated report.

A number of the presenters acknowledged that while maintaining privacy and security have been key challenges around sharing data, efforts to strengthen privacy could actually promote innovation and lead to more information-sharing by reinforcing trust. A few of the relevant rules recommended for the Commission’s focus included:

  • The Office of Management and Budget's recently re-issued A-130, which emphasizes the importance of privacy and security during the life-cycle of government data.
  • The 1974 Privacy Act, which addresses U.S. government transparency and the use of personally identifiable information, prohibits the disclosure of a record about an individual without written consent of the individual unless disclosure is related to statutory exceptions, provides individuals a means by which to seek access to and amend their records, and sets forth agency record-keeping requirements.
  • The Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act (CIPSEA), which applies anytime an agency acquires data for exclusively statistical purposes, is intended to minimize the risk of disclosure, and mandates severe penalties for willful disclosure.
  • The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the privacy of student education records, and applies to schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.

Several presenters also recommended the following actions and ideas for further consideration:

  • Craft standard templates for memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to ensure that agencies which are sharing and using information are following the same guidelines.
  • Overturn the Higher Education Act (HEA) ban on a Student Unit Record System (SURDS) to improve data linkages and enhance efficiencies, while maintaining privacy.
  • Take into account different cultural perspectives on privacy, understanding that citizens have different levels of comfort about government and other entities having access to personal data.

At the end of a challenging afternoon, Commissioner Robert Groves concluded on a hopeful note, saying that the refinement of data ethics and tough rules, along with advancements in technology, means that we have made substantial progress in recent years.  

The Commission has tentatively scheduled meetings on the following dates: October 21 - to hold a public hearing; November 4 - to address research and evaluation & labor and education; and December 12 - to address health and justice issues. Please check the Census Bureau’s webpage for future updates on schedules and venues.