New Commission Convenes amid “Perfect Storm” on Data

Christina Pena
July 26, 2016

The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking met in public for the first time last week to begin its comprehensive examination of data inventory and infrastructure, database security, and statistical protocols related to federal policymaking.

The bipartisan group of experts, who drew on their governmental, legal, academic, and technical experience, shared some of their aspirations, including:
  • Making it easier for researchers to access data sets from government;
  • Enabling better evaluation of government programs;
  • Improving the quality of data and analysis used by policymakers;
  • Making data available on a continual and timely basis, rather than having to resort to occasional assessments; and,
  • Sharing, improving, and implementing best practices for ensuring privacy and security.
The Commission’s convening comes as a “perfect storm” for action has formed, according to guest speaker Nancy Potok, who serves as Deputy Director at the U.S. Census Bureau. Expectations have grown among a wide variety of government and private users for faster, more reliable data. They also want data that are more tailored to a wide range of needs and at more refined levels. Meanwhile, surveys have encountered declining response rates and rising costs. These challenges come while rapidly changing technology has enabled more data collection and new ways of managing, using, and communicating this information.
Administrative data received special attention for its increasing quantity and potential to reduce costs. Greater short-term investment might be necessary, however, to upgrade older infrastructure in order to realize administrative data’s full potential. 
As guest speakers from relevant congressional committee staff, agencies, and academia flagged factors for the Commission’s consideration, a number of questions around federal, state, and local connections arose:
  • How could the federal government improve its data to make it easier for state and local governments to serve their people better?
  • Are there ways to make terms and definitions more consistent across agencies to improve data-sharing and make the information more comparable?
  • Are there new ways that state governments should report to the federal government that would improve data collection? Would it be useful to propose federal legislation that would require such compliance?
  • Would a clearinghouse or a virtual warehouse with data linkages best serve requirements while maintaining privacy and security?
As a next step to inform the Commission’s work, Co-Chair Ron Haskins suggested it would be useful to have from agencies a list of top-10 barriers that are preventing the federal government from sharing data. (WDQC and other workforce and education partners mentioned general barriers in a list of recommendations sent to the Commission, including difficulties in sharing wage record data and the ban on a national student unit record system.)
After the public meeting, the Commissioners met in private. The Commissioners have a little over a year to produce their final recommendations. For more information, visit the Commission’s webpage at the U.S. Census Bureau.
Update July 28: The Office of Management and Budget posted a series of background papers related to issues facing the Commission.