Government for the Future
Tuesday, October 30, 2018

In the IBM Center’s new book, Government For The Future:  Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’ Leaders, we have identified six major trends that have driven government management reforms.  This is the third in a six-part series where we highlight each trend; part three summarizes the evolution of the use of data in U.S. federal, state, and local governments.   For more detail, see the chapter on Using Data.

The rapid movement toward “going digital” over the last 20 years has served as a key enabler to the increased capability of government to collect and analyze data. This capability has similarly been a valuable tool to shift the emphasis from complying with reporting requirements to generating more useful data that informs performance improvement efforts.

Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset

In 2018, the President’s Management Agenda designated Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset as a cross-agency priority (CAP) goal. In its description of the CAP goal, the administration set out three key opportunities to more effectively use data in coming years:

  • Develop a long-term federal data strategy to better govern and leverage the federal data.
  • Enable government data to be accessible and useful for the American public, businesses, and researchers.
  • Improve the use of data for decision making and accountability for the federal government, including policy making, innovation, oversight, and learning.

The last two decades have been characterized by a more robust supply of useful data and performance information that can serve as a foundation for more evidence-based insights and decisions in the future. Government policy in recent years has encouraged the greater availability of open data, which has contributed to the growing supply of useful information.

Evolution of the Use of Data

Progress in this area has moved through three major phases over the past 20 years, as shown in the following chart:

 

Early action: This phase was characterized by an important shift from simply collecting and reporting data to using and analyzing data. Government organizations at the federal, state, and local levels all demonstrated an increased interest in timelier, more useful data. This emphasis was seen in the creation of PerformanceStat initiatives in localities across the nation, such as Baltimore. During this phase, the federal government also continued its interest in the use of data generated by state and local governments.

Expansion: Based on the increased production of data, government organizations began to focus on new ways to more effectively use the datasets that were being produced. New, more effective uses of data included increased used of analytics, data visualization tools, and big data.

Institutionalization: Based on government’s increased experience with the creation and use of data, government policies needed to change. These changes resulted in a series of new policies, increased use of open datasets, and the creation of chief data officer positions.

Looking Forward

A variety of important issues appear on the horizon regarding the future use of data by government agencies. For instance, how can government use data collected by the private sector? To date, the emphasis has been on making data “open” from the government to the public, including the private sector. A future challenge will face the private sector to make its data “open” to the government and other users. This sharing would create the possibility of effectively combining data collected by the government and the private sector.

A series of issues relate to sharing of data between federal government agencies themselves, between the federal government and other levels of government, and between local governments. Presently, the sharing of data between federal agencies poses problems because of statutory limits on sharing data. Proposed legislation, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017, would ease barriers, which currently make the sharing of data between agencies difficult. The capacity of the federal government to both manage and analyze its data continues to be a major issue, as discussed earlier in findings from the Pew Charitable Trusts report on the state use of data. Another report, the 2017 report of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, set forth two key capacity challenges for the federal government related to data:

The capacity to support the full range of evidence- building functions is uneven, and where capacity for evidence building does exist, it is often poorly coordinated within departments. The federal evidence community has insufficient resources and limited flexibilities that restrict the ability to expand evidence-building activities. A key recommendation of the Commission is that the president directs federal departments to increase capacity for evidence building throughout government.