The release of the President’s annual budget proposal offers insights into upcoming priorities and initiatives across the federal government. The Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal offers some perspectives about plans for implementing new data and evidence projects across government. This is the first full budget since enactment of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (Evidence Act), including the OPEN Government Data Act, and the final Federal Data Strategy, so it is the first opportunity for agencies to appeal to Congress for support through new authority and resources.
Here are six key take-aways from the data and evidence priorities in the 2021 budget proposal:
#1: Evidence Act Implementation is Shifting from OMB to Agencies
More than one year after enactment of the Evidence Act and with the first annual action plan issued by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), agencies are now expected to begin rapid implementation of core data and evidence obligations. The budget signals a new focus on tangible projects happening across agencies covering issues as wide-ranging as new program evaluations to open data planning and development of agency data inventories.
While OMB is expected to issue additional guidance in 2020 and develop a second-year action plan as part of the Federal Data Strategy, the budget proposal highlights that planned improvements are no longer just plans, but that real actions are underway. For example, the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Office of Evaluation Sciences recognized its role in supporting new agency evaluation officers in developing learning agendas, and is restructuring some of its activities to plan accordingly.
#2: Many Agencies are Making Progress in Prioritizing Evidence Act Implementation
The Evidence Act requires agencies to undertake a wide range of activities, further elaborated on in the Federal Data Strategy. Even before complete guidance is available from OMB, multiple agencies demonstrate rapid progress implementing the Evidence Act with explanations in budget justifications. For example, the Treasury Department included descriptions of available evidence and analytical projects for every bureau in the congressional justification, some with insightful projects. Other agencies describe new organizational processes and structures for ensuring data leaders receive sufficient support and empowerment. The Departments of Commerce and Education provide extensive details about the roles and organization of new chief data officers in supporting data governance boards and management activities.
#3: Agencies are Offering Realistic Assessments of Resource Needs
Some agencies appear to be forward-leaning with requests for additional resources, reallocations of existing resources, or flexible funding mechanisms to support data and evidence priorities. The Environmental Protection Agency requests funds for a new centralized evaluation unit, GSA requested additional resources to support the Chief Data Officer Council, and the Department of Labor requested flexibility in using funds for evaluation activities, to name a few. By identifying funding flexibilities and reallocations, agencies ease the burden on appropriators to identify new financial streams within top-line budget levels to support these initiatives, also suggesting increased likelihood of receiving the funding.
#4: Secure Data Sharing and Access Receive Substantial, Positive Attention
Buried in the details of agency budget requests are several proposals that suggest continued progress in implementing the unanimous, bipartisan recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis and Census Bureau propose to create a federal data service, similar to the National Secure Data Service, initially proposed by the Evidence Commission.
The Department of Health and Human Services proposes increasing access to wage and earnings data maintained in the National Directory of New Hires for targeted purposes, including to support improved government decision-making. Another proposal that is revived in the budget request is the idea to combine agencies that disseminate federal economic statistics. Collectively these proposals, among others, suggest a clear focus on maintaining bipartisan momentum for responsible data sharing across government.
#5: Artificial Intelligence Funding Presents Data Opportunities
The administration proposes to increase spending on artificial intelligence (AI) research and development activities in 2021, doubling current investments in preparation for building “industries of the future.” In practice, major investments that support AI also offer benefits to core data infrastructure and management across government agencies. New resources at the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Energy, could further promote rapid development of AI capabilities in government with benefits to policymakers, the economy, and the American public.
#6 Data Literacy, Training, and Skilling Recognized as a Critical Need
The budget proposal recognizes a detail often lost in dialogues about data capabilities in government: the federal workforce. Government workers need constant training and re-skilling to support emerging needs in data science, analytics, even privacy protections as technologies and methods evolve. To support the training and reskilling efforts, the budget includes a request for new funding to support diversity and highly-skilled workers for AI, data analysis, and other emerging needs.
Gaps and Missed Opportunities
There is always room for critique of the budget, and not all agencies provide clarity about the role of chief data officers, the value of evaluation, or even signal the prioritization of Evidence Act implementation. There are also challenges for the top-line messaging from the administration, including overall funding levels and removal of long-standing data, statistical, and performance chapters summarizing activities in the Analytical Perspectives Volume.
Importantly, the Trump budget proposal is a starting point for 2021 appropriations and Congress will still make numerous changes before final funding levels are established. Even for those that may disagree with the top-line spending levels or macro-policy choices, when it comes to the data and evidence priorities, there is much to applaud and support as the proposal is considered by Congress in coming months.