Under the Evidence Act, every federal agency is now tasked with making data more accessible and useful, and all agencies are required to engage with the American people to determine data and evidence priorities.

Under the Evidence Act, every federal agency is now tasked with making data more accessible and useful, and all agencies are required to engage with the American people to determine data and evidence priorities. alexsl/Getty Images

Data initiatives need to innovate on public engagement: Here’s how we can continue to improve

COMMENTARY | Long-term, effective stakeholder engagement can lead to long-term success.

Collecting and using data is part of the backbone of the United States government. The Constitution includes the requirement to hold a decennial census, which was originally mandated to determine taxation and representation in the House. Since the first census was held in 1790, federal agencies have developed extensive programs to collect and publish data on demographic, scientific, economic, social, and other factors that shape American enterprise and American life. Data.gov, launched during the Obama administration as a centralized portal for federal data, has grown to include more than 250,000 data assets. 

Now the 2019 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (or Evidence Act) is requiring federal agencies to do even more to make sure their data is serving the public. Under the Evidence Act, every federal agency is now tasked with making data more accessible and useful, and all agencies are required to engage with the American people to determine data and evidence priorities. The President’s Management Agenda also establishes an expectation that agencies engage directly with their public stakeholders to develop these priorities. 

Dedicated civil servants, researchers, and trusted partners are promoting responsible access and use of government data by seeking, receiving, and integrating feedback and participation from the American public throughout the data collection and use process. But in doing so, they need to do more than invite interested parties to show up at a town hall meeting or respond to a notice in the Federal Register. They need to take a more active approach to public engagement to help drive effective evidence-informed decisions. 

There are a number of models of active public engagement to draw from. For example: 

  • The National Vital Statistical System is a long-standing collaboration between national, state, local, and tribal governments. The coordination between government jurisdictions, in partnership with nonprofit and academic institutions, means the American people receive better insights for public health that support disease surveillance, research about the population’s health, and even efforts to reduce improper payments. 
  • In 2020 the Census Bureau launched the Household Pulse Survey as a collaboration between multiple federal agencies to quickly deploy an efficient data collection to measure household experiences during the coronavirus pandemic and recovery. The Survey also gathered feedback from leading national experts, provided opportunities for broad public feedback, and iterated for improvements over time. The data from the Survey now provides a baseline and set of robust research information that will support researchers for a generation in understanding the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • LymeX, a partnership with the private sector that is led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), promotes solutions to tick-borne illnesses while engaging affected patients. The solutions developed through the partnership are scalable, impactful, and meaningful to the patients – and achieved in a cost-effective manner.  

Across the policymaking community, engagement is a long-recognized tool for improving transparency, enhancing decisions, and building consensus. But how should federal agencies approach engagement given the complex legal landscape, rapidly-evolving technological approaches, and ever-growing stakeholder interests? We offer four suggestions as part of the open access Stakeholder Engagement Toolkit for Evidence Building for how agencies can improve engagement strategies in the years ahead:

  • Articulate the goals of the engagement. Always know why engagement is happening and articulate why it is beneficial. There is nothing worse than being asked to participate  only to realize that it is just to check a box. And nothing is more inspiring than realizing an agency is trying to improve in its mission by genuinely asking for help. 
  • Clarify who the stakeholders are. It sounds simple, but be clear on who to engage, what level of information to provide in the process, and how much feedback to seek. Stakeholder mapping is an approach that helps clarify stakeholders at the right level, and how to calibrate for the types of engagement that align with respective goals. 
  • Be honest about the costs and benefits of engagement. Engagement has real benefits but is not zero-cost. Being realistic about the costs with agency leaders, while providing an assessment of potential benefits, will help calibrate efforts for the most appropriate and effective engagement approaches. 
  • Build capacity and acknowledge barriers exist. Government needs more capacity-building efforts that intentionally focus on innovations and strategies to encourage engagement, while acknowledging that barriers exist to implement existing strategies. Developing or hiring for specific skillsets will go a long way towards promoting more innovation in engagement.  

Many agencies are already carrying out innovative and impactful engagement to improve their data and evidence programs. Stakeholder engagement is an iterative and complex process, where the end of one project may be the beginning of another. But long-term, effective stakeholder engagement can lead to long-term success. To realize these benefits, agencies need to commit the necessary resources to meaningfully incorporate the perspectives of those who are interested in and impacted by their policies, programs, and mission. Effective, responsive engagement can produce a critically important outcome for government: improved public trust. That outcome alone is enough to provide a strong return for investing in public engagement.   

Joel Gurin is president and founder of the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE). Nick Hart is president and CEO of the Data Foundation.