The Data Trains Have Left the Station

Guest author: Robert Shea

Remember that SAT question about trains? One leaves Pleasantville at 70 miles per hour heading 250 miles for Happyville; another leaves Happyville at the same time going 60 miles per hour heading toward Pleasantville. When do the two trains meet? Well, that’s pretty much how I felt about the evidence and open data trains.

If evidence represents the attempt to objectively describe that status of something and therefore informs policymaking, and if policymaking is the subjective decision making process to determine how something should be, then open data is the mechanism for publicly including government stakeholders in the policymaking conversation. Evidence based policymaking needs open data like trains need passengers.

I am not sure when those trains exactly left their respective stations, but recently they met in the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act of 2017 (FEBP Act) (HR 4174), which the House unanimously passed this week. And the result is fantastic.

Transparency advocates have been promoting the next stage of open data, one in which agency data is presumed open or public by default. At the same time, the Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking made recommendations to greatly expand the extent to which agencies can securely access data to more quickly and cheaply evaluate programs to find out what works. The efforts came together in Congress this week.

The Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act of 2017 has two parts. Title I of the bill – Federal Evidence-Building Activities – addresses the Commission’s recommendations as summarized in the House Oversight Committee’s detailed report (H. Rept. 115-411). Under the bill, agencies would be required to appoint or designate a Chief Evaluation Officer. The Officer would be charged with leading the development of a “systematic plan for identifying and addressing policy questions relevant to the programs, policies, and regulations of the agency,” (see Sec. 312 in HR 4174) as well as the methods and data with which they will answer those questions. Among other important provisions, the bill requires greater inter- and intra-agency collaboration on evidence-building efforts.  

Title II – the OPEN Government Data Act (originally introduced as HR 1770) – represents the culmination of rigorous efforts of transparency advocates, including the Data Coalition, to turn agency data policy upside down. That is, while agencies may have a bias for withholding data from the public in a truly open form, the OPEN Government Data Act would require agencies to make data in their custody public by default. For example, agencies would be required to create comprehensive data inventories linked to a centralized Federal Data Catalogue and ensure data assets in their possession are made available in open formats by default.

Greater use of evidence in policymaking and greater access to data by the public are simply good government policies that are greatly needed. To the extent policymakers have and make better use of evidence in their decisionmaking, programs will improve and better serve their intended beneficiaries. Greater public access to government’s data increases transparency and unlocks insights into agency operations and how to improve them. Furthermore, there’s significant value in the data government currently procures that the public will likely discover when emerging private sector analytics and visualization techniques are applied.

Though transparency and evidence communities are immersed in data and policies to encourage greater data access and use, they seem to speak different languages. Now their objectives are joined in common legislation that advances both causes. I have been on both trains. I hope they can combine forces and work together to make government’s data better, more useful, and more accessible than ever before.

Robert Shea is a Principal in Grant Thornton Public Sector and served on the Commission on the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. Before joining Grant Thornton, Shea served as Associate Director for Management at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB).