In one of the era’s few bipartisan governing initiatives, the congressionally impaneled Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking on Thursday called for creation of a new National Secure Data Service, improved legal protections of privacy and greater coordination of agency data sets by the Office of Management and Budget.
Mandated under a law President Obama signed in March 2016 pushed through by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the 15-member commission was tasked with determining the optimal arrangement for which administrative data on federal programs and tax expenditures, survey data, and related statistical data series may be integrated and made available to facilitate program evaluation, continuous improvement, policy-relevant research and cost-benefit analyses.
The commission’s 130-page report—the subject of a press conference set for Thursday afternoon with Ryan and Murray—asserted that “the country’s laws and practices are not currently optimized to support the use of data for evidence building, nor in a manner that best protects privacy.”
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To help agencies fulfill “the promise” of evidence-based data in confronting challenges ranging from combating substance abuse to creating affordable housing and investing in the workforce, the commission called for amendments to the Privacy Act and the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act to enable the creation of the new data service that would “facilitate access to data for evidence building while ensuring privacy and transparency in how those data are used.”
That entity “should be a service, not a data clearinghouse or warehouse. The NSDS should facilitate temporary data linkages in support of distinct authorized projects,” said the report submitted to congressional leaders and the White House.
From an agency management perspective, “The capacity of federal departments to support the full range of evidence-building functions is uneven, and where capacity for evidence building does exist, it is often poorly coordinated within departments,” said the commission chaired by Katharine Abraham, former Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner now an economics professor at the University of Maryland, and Ron Haskins, a former House Ways and Means Committee staffer now in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.
“The current organizational structure of OMB does not optimize the agency’s ability to coordinate evidence building across the federal government,” the report said. OMB should “promulgate a single, streamlined process for researchers external to the government to apply, become qualified and gain approval to access government data that are not publicly available.”
President Trump, the report recommended, should direct agencies to assign a senior official for “coordinating access to and stewardship of the department’s data resources for evidence building in collaboration with senior department information technology, privacy and other leaders.”
That could raise a budget issue. “The federal evidence-building community has insufficient resources and limited flexibilities that restrict the ability to expand evidence-building activities,” the report said.
The commission rejected the idea that increased access to confidential data dramatically increases the risk of privacy violations. “Greater use of existing data is now possible in conjunction with stronger privacy and legal protections, as well as increased transparency and accountability,” it said. “The commission believes that improved access to data under more privacy-protective conditions can lead to an increase in both the quantity and the quality of evidence to inform important program and policy decisions. “
The report, based on 10 months of consultation with multiple experts, agencies and the public, concluded, “Whether making decisions on funding allocations, assessing new regulations, or understanding how to improve processes for efficiently providing services, evidence is needed in every decision made by government officials—career civil servant, political appointee or elected official. Without the use of evidence in our democracy, we are only guessing at whether government programs and policies are achieving their intended goals.”