How Congress can get better data and also increase privacy

Shutterstock image: charting data. 

A bipartisan panel of privacy and data experts is pushing for the creation of a federal service for data collection and distribution to aid evidence-based policymaking, with an emphasis on ensuring privacy.

The Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2016, introduced in the House by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and in the Senate by Patty Murray (D-Wash.), mandated a 15-member panel, appointed by former President Barack Obama and both Republican and Democratic congressional leadership, to develop a series of legislative recommendations.

The goal of the commissioners was "a future in which rigorous evidence is created efficiently, as a routine part of government operations, and used to construct effective public policy," the authors write.

"It sounds so simple, but it's just not what we've been doing for a long time," said Ryan. "We now have the expertise, the idea for legal protections and the technology to do this."

The 22 recommendations set forth by the commissioners, developed in just over a year, direct Congress and the president to focus on three broad categories: ensuring privacy, improving data access and strengthening the federal government's capacity for evidence building.

In terms of specific benefits from the expanded use of data, the authors point to more granular and accurate information about federally sponsored programs, such as permanent supportive housing, substance abuse education and the workforce at large.

To facilitate access to data, while balancing privacy and transparency, the commission recommends the establishment of a National Secure Data Service to be housed under the Department of Commerce.

The authors argue that important data and infrastructure already exists, and the placement of NSDS within Commerce will "build on the infrastructure and expertise" of the IT- and data-intensive agency.

In conjunction with the creation of the data service, the commission recommends standing up a publicly accessible transparency and accountability portal that would notify the public about how confidential data is used, as well as about agencies' compliance with rules surrounding privacy.

Additionally, the authors a series of statutory changes that make information sharing easier, make sure agencies have all the technological systems they need to ensure objective statistical production and data privacy, and to repeal bans that limit collection and use of data for evidence-building.

Integral to the recommendations is the commission's rejection of the notion that increasing access to data, including confidential and personal data, assumes an increased privacy risk.

The word "privacy" appears 408 times in the 114-page report, an emphasis that reflects the commission's prioritization of protecting sensitive information, said commission chairwoman Katharine Abraham.

The report recommends the president to urge federal agencies "to adopt state-of-the-art databases, cryptography, privacy-preserving and privacy-enhancing technologies for confidential data used for evidence building.

The authors also urge agencies to create a chief evaluation officer position to establish an evidence-building workforce, as well as to name a senior official to manage access between evidence-building data resources and to work with other senior agency leaders.

But it's not just federal agencies; the authors say Congress and the White House also should work with states "to ensure that state-collected administrative data on quarterly earnings are available for solely statistical purposes" to aid federal decision-making for grants and other funding.

On the private-sector side, the commission states OMB should create a single, streamlined process for researchers to apply and gain approval to access government data that isn't publicly available.

While the report lays out recommendations, Murray noted, it's now up to Congress to "turn the two dozen recommendations into law."

Ryan affirmed he and Murray "will be working with our colleagues in the House and the Senate on legislation to do this — to improve access to data, to improve privacy and to help expand our capacity to improve programs."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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