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Government’s data policies enter the 21st century — finally

Recently passed reforms hold hope of more evidence-informed policies

Before he gave up his speaker gavel and retired from the House, Paul D. Ryan had a final hurrah in December when Congress passed a package of comprehensive data reforms that he and Washington Sen. Patty Murray had introduced a year earlier. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Before he gave up his speaker gavel and retired from the House, Paul D. Ryan had a final hurrah in December when Congress passed a package of comprehensive data reforms that he and Washington Sen. Patty Murray had introduced a year earlier. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — It might be 2019, but our government’s data infrastructure is largely stuck in the 20th century.

That’s a big problem in the era of the information age. Failing to use data to improve government’s programs and services means taxpayers may not be getting what they pay for. It also means our public discourse suffers when figuring out what problems should be addressed and the best ways to do so.

Over the holidays, a family discussion turned to a question about whether there are disparities in drowning deaths among the country’s minority population. To find the answer, I did what any Ph.D. researcher steeped in the intricacies of statistics would do — I Googled it.

My search directed me to a brief from the National Center for Health Statistics that concluded disparities unequivocally exist in drowning deaths by race and ethnicity. Major ones. It turns out black children, ages 11 to 12, are 10 times more likely to drown than white kids the same age. By any measure, this is a public health concern. And with that quick research, we had facts we could all agree on that framed our understanding of an important societal problem.

The National Center for Health Statistics is one of just a handful of government agencies capable of answering this type of important, complex and multi-faceted question. Still, the organization is not without its challenges when it comes to giving us information to find better solutions to important problems — and sometimes determine whether there’s a problem in the first place.

Fortunately, we’re about to see big improvements across the government. In the final days of 2018, Republicans and Democrats in Congress came together to pass the most comprehensive data reforms of my lifetime in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act.

Skeptics will note that every few years Congress passes some legislation that tries to implement sweeping reforms of government operations. The measure gains steam and then fizzles out as attention moves to a new fad. But these latest reforms, once enacted, will stick.

Lawmakers started the reform process a few years ago by asking a group of experts to develop a comprehensive solution to government’s most vexing data problems while also protecting privacy. In 2017, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking issued its unanimous recommendations to strengthen privacy protocols for managing sensitive data while improving the ability to use data for research and evaluation.

Congress took half of the commission’s recommendations and worked them into the Foundations bill.

The legislation would ensure that government agencies have senior leaders to facilitate privacy safeguards and efforts to use data at the same time. It would update and strengthen a critical law for keeping sensitive information collected by the government confidential, protecting our privacy. It would ensure the public can trust government data and encourage agencies to make more data publicly accessible when possible. It would also direct agencies to develop processes and a workforce to use data to evaluate policies.

But the measure is more than just a strategy to modernize data processes; it’s also a signal that our elected leaders are truly serious about having agreed-upon facts to frame debates and inform critical decisions. The bipartisan legislation is a marker of a new philosophy in the information age — that the country must be prepared to experiment, evaluate, learn and adapt approaches, rather than sticking with the status quo when existing policies are not working.

There is much work to do to ensure the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act achieves its goals. A divided Congress will need to work together to provide bipartisan oversight. Executive agencies and the White House must make good-faith efforts to be enthusiastic implementers. And the American public, including researchers, evaluators and privacy advocates, must willingly participate in tough conversations about how to prioritize the questions researchers should address and when data analysis might pose too much of a threat to privacy rights.

The bipartisan cooperation in Congress and the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking deserves praise for leading the country down a path for responsible data use and improved privacy protections. The American public and our government should seize on the opportunity and the new tools created to advance more evidence-informed policies.

Now we just need to find a way to make family discussions more fact-based too.

Nick Hart is director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence Project. He previously served as the policy and research director for the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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