Why we need a federal data strategy

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Three months ago, the White House released the President’s Management Agenda with ambitious plans for upgrading the federal government’s technical and data capabilities and the workforce to support them. A key part of that agenda was the commitment to develop an integrated Federal Data Strategy ”that encompasses all relevant governance, standards, infrastructure and commercialization challenges of operating in a data-driven world.” To drive progress in this area, the President’s Management Agenda established a cross-agency priority (CAP) goal, Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset, for all federal agencies to follow.

Today, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and its government partners took a significant step towards achieving that goal. They have launched a new website, strategy.data.gov, to encourage public comment on the Federal Data Strategy, including a new draft set of principles based on three overarching themes: data stewardship, quality, and continuous improvement. These government leaders are also especially interested in use cases that can be models for future work. Any member of the public can provide direct input here. The announcement today presents an ideal opportunity for government data providers and data users of all kinds to have an impact on how the Federal Data Strategy develops.

The commitment to an overarching Federal Data Strategy is welcome and timely. Since 2015, the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.,  has worked closely with the White House and more than a dozen federal agencies to find ways to maximize the value of government data as a public resource. Huge amounts of data collected and managed by the federal government can be applied in a large variety of ways to foster economic growth and social good.

Over the past decade, the federal government has taken many steps to organize and improve the myriad data systems that the government maintains: The launch of data.gov and other sites like USAspending.gov; the establishment of new positions for the U.S. chief technology officer, U.S. chief information officer, and chief data officers across government; the Federal Open Data Policy; the passage and implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act;  and a range of other federal programs and initiatives. All have put a new focus on the value of federal data and the value it provides.

But as CODE has described in an extensive report, there are still many challenges in making that data as relevant, useful, and accessible as it needs to be. We need a unifying Federal Data Strategy to organize and improve these efforts, along the lines of the draft  principles that OMB has identified and presented for public feedback.

Data stewardship, with strong leadership, governance systems, and technical processes, is essential to managing federal data so that it can be applied widely, effectively, and appropriately. Good data stewardship must guarantee that data privacy and confidentiality are protected, that federal data is resistant to cyberattacks, and that federal data is managed with full public transparency about its collection and use.

Data quality needs to be improved across the federal government for better accuracy, completeness, timeliness, consistency, and machine-readability. The Federal Data Strategy should help agencies prioritize targets for quality improvement and focus first on the data that will provide the most value to the businesses, researchers, organizations, and other agencies that use it.

Continuous data improvement will also be essential, and will need to go hand in hand with the IT modernization that the Trump administration has established as a government priority.  There is continuing work to be done to improve interoperability, data and metadata standards, and best practices overall.

All this work should proceed with input and feedback from the data users who will ultimately put federal data to work. Last month, CODE and OMB co-hosted a roundtable on Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset that helped begin that process of public engagement. Everyone in the growing community of data users can now join the conversation and  help shape the future of government data in a way that will provide the greatest public benefit.

Joel Gurin is President of the Center for Open Data Enterprise, where Katarina Rebello is Director of Programs. The Center thanks its Open Data Partners, Accenture Federal Services and Booz Allen Hamilton, for supporting its work on the Open Data Roundtable series.

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Center for Open Data Enterprise, Federal Data Strategy, IT Modernization, Joel Gurin, Katarina Rebello, OMB, open data, Presidents Management Agenda
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