Administration’s New Federal Data Strategy: Opportunities, Limitations, and Context


If you have been following along with the President’s Management Agenda (PMA), you will have noticed the release of the Second Quarter Action plans late last month.

As we detailed in our previous blog summary, the heart of the PMA is represented by the fourteen Cross Agency Priority (CAP) Goals all housed on Performance.gov.

Again, these include three transformation ‘drivers’ (IT modernization, data as a strategic asset, and workforce reform), three ‘cross-cutting’ reforms (customer experience, shared services, and executive policies refinement), as well as eight other ‘functional’ and ‘mission’ priority areas.

At the Data Coalition, we are zeroing in on, you guessed it, Goal 2: Data as a Strategic Asset and Goal 8: Results-Oriented Accountability for Grants Management.

Below is a brief background on the Administration’s approach to open data, a summary of the status of these goals, and the case for why Congress still needs to act.

Background: Administration’s Perspective

The Data Coalition has observed throughout the U.S. that open data is about both transparency outside government as well as efficiency inside government (see the benefits matrix on page 4 of the Data Foundation’s 2018 State of the Union of Open Data for more).

Recently in her opening remarks at our June Data Demo Day, U.S. CIO Suzette Kent reinforced the importance of tackling the foundational work of assuring “data quality” (e.g., common standards and data hygiene). She stated that “we can’t use the data if we don’t understand it….we have to start with the basics, and we have to make sure we have a rock-solid foundation” (read more from Government CIO).

This has always been a central thesis of the Data Coalition: a lot of our problems boil down to underlying governance, procedural, and structural issues of data.

Technology is not always the central problem. Much progress can be made at the more granular level of data standard setting, harmonization, and business processes to improve existing data sets.

As we have stated previously, there are widespread management challenges intrinsic to large bureaucratic systems:

Common to all of these business cases is the issue of poor data; both ‘operational’ (i.e., mission agnostic data that represent the resources, decisions, transactions, outputs, and outcomes of work) and ‘material’ (i.e., mission specific data that represents persons, places, and things).

Along these lines we have learned that the Administration has been talking about data within three categories:

  • “Mission or programmatic data” (material)
    • Data collected, created, or required to administer a government program.
  • “Mission support data” (operational)
    • Grant, procurement, financial management, and human resources data.
  • “Statistical data”
    • Mission data that is curated for analysis.

Frameworks help initiatives take off and guide stakeholders, and in terms of the Data Coalition, we focus on policy reforms tackling operational data.

The Administration hinted early on how they would approach open data as they built out a management agenda. In July 2017, the White House hosted an open data roundtable focused on economic growth where the themes of supporting business (interested in the “potential to develop new commercial ventures to serve citizens using open government data”, prioritize open data work around what drives private sector growth), improving government (“a key part of IT modernization”, build IT around data needs), and enabling collaboration emerged (“demand-driven and government-led”, an enabler of entrepreneurial activity) (see this recap article).

So let’s check in on the status of the CAP goals.

CAP Goal 2: Data as a Strategic Asset

The big news with Goal 2, as you can see from the second quarter action plan, is the release of a new Federal Data Strategy which includes both draft high-level data strategy principles focused on stewardship, quality, and continuous improvement (see this Department of Commerce press release). The website includes a call for public feedback on the draft high-level principles which the timeline below indicates will be fleshed out with more substantive best practices for a January 2019 release.

The Administration is also calling for use cases that will feed into a forthcoming “data incubator project”. The selected use cases will be studied and in some instances implemented along with “academic, private sector, and NGO partnerships.”
 
On first blush, the Data Coalition would like to see more of an emphasis on standard setting work. Although, “interoperaperability” includes such concepts and these principles are yet to include calls for specific activities and projects, which standard setting is. The data incubator project is an ideal opportunity to launch discrete standard setting projects.  

Standard setting is hard work and we advocate for tackling specific domains of data as our policy agenda breaks out:

  • Open Data for Management (e.g., DATA Act and financial and spending information, grant reporting, contractor and grantee identifiers).
  • Open Data for Regulatory Compliance (e.g., SEC regulatory reporting, corporate entity identifiers).
  • Open Data for Laws and Mandates (e.g., structured data legislative, legal, and regulatory requirements).

Standard setting is tedious, involved, and important work. Sometimes it does not entirely go right and needs to be revised. For example the Data Foundation’s 2017 Open Data for Financial Reporting: Costs, Benefits, and Future report makes four recommendations to improve the US GAAP Financial Reporting Taxonomy employed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for corporate regulatory compliance.

This is where the Administration’s call for use cases is helpful: specific domains and projects can be identified to further integrate disparate data sets to help inform the Administration’s efforts.

The Administration should incorporate prior work and lessons learned from recent federal initiatives such as the Project Open Data which are all summarized in this federal CIO Council 2017 IT status report.

There is a lot of existing work that should be leveraged.

Why Legislation: Pass the Open Government Data Act

While we are heartened by the expressed open data intentions of this Administration, Congress still needs to act and pass the OPEN Government Data Act into law. There are limits to what the executive branch can be expected to do, and by codifying a lot of these reforms into law, agency champions, and current and future executive leaders will have the necessary legal tools to enforce their work. You can explore the bill’s requirements here and the House Oversight Committee report provides a wonderful overview (see pages 11-16 of H. Rept. 115-411).

Federal data is clearly worth investing in and pursuing these reforms.

For example, a 2013 McKinsey & Company report estimates that seven sectors alone could generate more than $3 trillion a year in additional value as a result of opening government data. Also, a 2014 Department of Commerce (DOC) Economics and Statistics Administration report claims that the cost of processing government data is far outweighed by its revenue potential (see page 42).

Passage of the OPEN Government Data Act would not only increase government transparency, public-private collaboration, and internal management efficiency, it also has clear financial benefits that stand to bring in vast amounts of revenue to the government.

We are off to a good start. The 2017 State of Federal Information Technology report details in Figure C2 that the number of data sets available on Data.gov has increased from 41,894 in 2012 to 186,467 in 2016; that is a 400% increase in just four years.

This is a clear upward trajectory, and according to the metrics on data.gov, new data sets are still being added monthly.

It makes one wonder how much value is yet to be unlocked.

CAP Goal 8: Grants Management Reform

The Administration has also included a functional CAP Goal to focus on “Results Oriented Accountability for Grants”. We describe the backstory in full here.

In brief, the 2014 DATA Act established a pilot project (Section 5) to explore the burden reduction of post-award grant reporting compliance by standardizing and harmonizing the data elements contained across the government’s grant reporting forms. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the lead implementing agency for the pilot project, created the Common Data Element Repository (CDER) Library (hosted publicly on USAspending.gov) (more here) which has documented over 34,000 grant recipient data elements across the government.

In August of 2017, the White House summarized the results of this pilot project in a report to Congress, which called for such government-wide reforms: Recommendation #1 calls for a “comprehensive taxonomy of standard definitions for core data elements” (see page 56).

Largely in response to this report and outside advocacy, the House Oversight Committee passed Grant Reporting Efficiency and Agreements Transparency (GREAT) Act (H.R. 4887) which would mandate these reforms.

On top of all this, the Administration’s grants CAP goal seeks to standardize grant compliance information and is so far leveraging the broader shared services Federal Integrated Business Framework (FIBF) for Grants Management Standards.

The Administration, along with the implementing lead agencies HHS and the Department of Education, should start with the CDER library as they continue to identify high priority forms and data elements to harmonize into the PMA’s core data standards work.

The CDER Library is the ideal repository to house this work.

Why Legislation: Pass the GREAT Act

Like with government-wide open data policies and the OPEN Government Data Act, the House’s GREAT Act (H.R. 4887) is necessary to accomplish these grant reporting standardization reforms.

Most simply, the GREAT Act would:

  • Would define, mandate the development of, and assure the ongoing maintenance of ‘core data standards’ for post-award grant reporting compliance.
  • Give the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) the legal authority to compel agencies to utilize the data core standards.
  • Provide assurance to the State grant management offices and non-profit sector that they can make corresponding investments in standardizing their own grant management systems for ultimate interoperability with federal reporting. This whitepaper from Workiva details this important link.

The bottom line is that laws outlast executive initiatives, and for reforms to be truly effective we need Congress to be an equally involved partner. This model is working out for the DATA Act’s implementation as Congress was able to bring the necessary oversight, funding, and now utilization of the data.

The Data Coalition will be closely involved with the development of these PMA CAP goals and is eager to learn from the community.