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To Get a Glance into the Future Federal Data Strategy, Look to This Act

There’s been a lot of attention directed toward the Federal Data Strategy and what it might contain. But if you want to know more about what the strategy could look like, just look to an act that passed in 2018 on evidence-based policymaking.

According to a key General Services Administration (GSA) official, the Federal Data Strategy complements the Foundations of Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act.

“If you look at the elements of the Federal Data Strategy and juxtapose it with the act, you will see a lot of overlap,” Trey Bradley, Program Manager at GSA, said at the Association of Government Accountants’ PIO/CIO Summit on May 14. “They’re not exactly the same, but they complement each other.”

Data was one of the 14 key drivers of change laid out in the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) earlier this year. There are three main focus areas for the Federal Data Strategy:

  1. Principles: timeless, enduring guidance around data. Some of the themes are around ethical governance or being transparent as possible while also protecting security and privacy, having a conscious design or thinking of things from a systemic perspective, and promoting a learning culture.
  2. Practices: taking the principles and actualizing them in a three to five-year time frame.
  3. Action plan: what do we need to do next?

At this stage, GSA has published the final principles, viewable at strategy.data.gov. In a few weeks, agency officials will release final practices and the one-year action plan for the Federal Data Strategy. Bradley said after receiving and incorporating feedback, all three sections will be released by August.

The origins of the FEBP Act and the Federal Data Strategy are the same; they both originate from the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

The FEBP Act is actually an example of evidence-based policymaking itself, Nick Hart, CEO of Data Coalition, pointed out. It arose out of recommendations from the evidence commission; thus, Congress used evidence to make a law.

The commission was tasked not with solving challenges for specific agencies or a data domain, but rather creating a cross-functional, intentionally broad strategy to allow agencies to make data increasingly useful across the board. Data at one agency of government could be useful to other agencies, Hart explained. If we need sufficient data to make good decisions, we have to acknowledge that data at one agency could be useful to another.

The impact of the FEBP Act is felt in the transition to more critical decision-making when it comes to data management at agencies. Bradley described it as a shift to a more systemic way of thinking about data. Instead of looking at it “foxhole by foxhole or going for the low-hanging fruit,” agencies have to think critically. What data should they collect? How does that data tie into each agency’s objectives? How can agencies share data across government to solve problems?

Michael Conlin, Chief Data Officer (CDO) at the Defense Department (DoD), thinks that the impact of the FEBP Act will be both a polarizing one and a unifying one. At federal agencies with citizen-facing functions, it’s in everyone’s best interest to expose the most they can, data-wise.

However, agencies like Conlin’s experience more of the polarizing effect.

“Organizations like mine are deathly afraid of how much information we inadvertently reveal as we publish our data,” Conlin said.

He calls this the Starbucks Rule. How much data can he make into a pile and run analytics over in a public cloud for the price of a large latte? The answer to that is everything his department has ever put into the public domain.

“There’s real tension between showing the taxpayer the value of their money and not revealing too much to our adversaries,” Conlin explained. “That’s the polarizing effect from a CDO’s perspective. It could be more unifying on a citizen-level, as citizens see the impact of the choices they make, the money they give to candidates. The evidence will show what works and what doesn’t.”

As a citizen, Conlin welcomes the FEBP Act because he can get behind the outcome more than the mechanisms for achieving those outcomes.

“This is going to give us a much greater ability to participate in the democratic process,” Conlin said. “As a CDO, I think this is going to be an interesting tightrope to walk.”

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