Making the Most of Federal Data

by Rachel Zinn
February 24, 2014

Federal agencies should push harder to use their data for research that aids in policy and program improvements, according to a recent memo from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The memo explains that research and evaluation “help the Federal Government understand how public needs are changing, how well Federal policy and programs are addressing those needs, and where greater progress can be achieved.”

The memo is in line with WDQC’s agenda for reform, which calls for effectively using data to ensure that our nation is preparing workers to succeed in an evolving economy.

Federal agencies collect huge amounts of “administrative data” in order to operate their programs. Some of the data is required by law, like the outcomes for participants in programs funded by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), while other information is mandated by agency regulations.

Administrative data isn’t collected for research purposes, but the OMB memo urges federal agencies to “use administrative data more fully in a manner that respects privacy and protects confidentiality.”

“Individuals, businesses, and institutions will benefit through agencies' use of existing information that would otherwise need to be collected from them again through costly and duplicative surveys,” it says.

Some administrative data is already used in interesting ways. The Internal Revenue Service provides tax data to other agencies for statistical analysis, including economic forecasts. The Department of Education is conducting a pilot to see whether sharing information collected by its financial aid office can help high school guidance counselors reach out to students not taking steps to attend college.

The really great thing about the OMB memo is that it says sometimes implicit legal authority (rather than explicit statutory language) can allow data sharing for statistical research. Too often, risk-averse federal agencies avoid sharing data unless they are required to by law. Now they have clear guidance to think creatively about the best ways to use data.

The memo provides a template for creating data exchange agreements between federal agencies and offices. State agencies may also find this template helpful as they think about how to share data while complying with federal and state rules.

By June 30, federal agencies are supposed to identify three datasets that could have value for researchers, and ways they could make these data more accessible. WDQC will provide updates as new information becomes available.