Data policy for a new administration

Experts have some advice for the next administration on tackling open-data initiatives early in its term to improve government operations and service.

Shutterstock image (by R.T. Wohlstadter): blue binary tunnel, fractal illustration.

When the next administration takes office in January, the president will immediately be inundated with a bevy of managerial tasks, such as filling about 4,000 political positions and getting his or her agenda off the ground.

The 45th president will need to tackle open government data on a larger scale than ever before. Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said the best way to start would be to build on the previous administration's progress.

"When new teams come in, they classically think about trying to do new things, not carry on the best things that have already been started by their predecessor," he said. "Almost all, if not all, of the early victories are things that are already in the pipeline."

During his two terms, President Barack Obama launched numerous open-data initiatives that address student finances, policing and climate change, among other things.

Although not undoing existing programs is important, Obama's open-data initiatives are not enough, said Joel Gurin, founder and president of the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE). That's because many of those programs rely on specific leaders at the White House or agencies, and those positions are subject to change under a new administration.

Instead, Gurin said the government needs to institutionalize the gains that have been made to effectively build on any progress, a strategy that CODE outlines in a new report. The working group that wrote it focused on making the recommendations specific and actionable within the first year of the new administration.

Those recommendations include improving data infrastructure, ensuring that data is "born digital" rather than digitized from analog sources or locked into restrictive formats, identifying sets of problems that open data can address, and improving access to data for scientists, researchers and industry.

The recommendations, aimed at myriad federal agencies, also include the appointment of chief data officers, the full implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act and increased interagency coordination.

Shelley Metzenbaum, former associate director of performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget, said that although data transparency is "desperately needed for democratic society to flourish," the next administration must focus on more than simply opening the data to realize its capabilities.

"Data are just digits unless people use information," she said. "Federal agencies and those they fund need to think more intentionally about what and how to collect, store, present and share data and data analyses to make data more useful to many more users."

In other words, data needs to be useful, purposeful and constructive, Metzenbaum added.

"Even if data's used and even if it's purposeful, people tend to fear data if it's used to punish them," she said. "We need to create an operating climate where the use of data does not create fear among people in government...causing them to run for cover or, worse, manipulate or implode the measurement system."

Hudson Hollister, founder and executive director of the Data Coalition, said he is pleased with the progress on the open-data front but added that "we have not even scratched the surface of what open data can solve."

He told FCW the biggest challenge facing the next administration is overcoming the perception that open-data projects are flashy, peripheral technology projects, and he cited past resistance as coming "not from the technology offices but from the management offices."

"For the next president, open data won't be [viewed as] a tech project; it will simply be running the government," he said.

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