For the last few years, federal data leadership has been moving in an “open” direction. Federal policies and legislation have directed agencies to make their data more open, to use open source solutions, and to use the cloud to manage and publish data more efficiently.
But the potential of these new initiatives has not yet been realized. We need more resources, leadership, and policy alignment to make government information more available across agencies and to the public; to ensure that government decisions are driven by evidence; and to increase the efficiency and lower the costs of government operations.
A new report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government, in collaboration with the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE) analyzes “open” government policies and shows how they can be made more effective. The report describes current government policies, shows how they complement each other, highlights implementation challenges, and recommends improvements. It focuses on four policies: the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (Evidence Act), the Federal Data Strategy, the Federal Cloud Computing Strategy, and the Federal Source Code Policy – and describes the resources, leadership, and alignment needed to implement them effectively.
Funding and other resources are critical to modernize systems, establish data governance, build technical infrastructure, and implement projects like technical upgrades and data sharing and migration. Since agencies differ in their needs and capacities, resources should be spread strategically so that all agencies can modernize in ways that make the most sense for their particular needs. The report recommends that the Federal government:
- Fund Evidence Act Implementation. Chief Data Officers (CDOs) and agency data programs are often underfunded and understaffed. Funding for Evidence Act implementation would be helpful in a number of areas including workforce development, technology adoption, and interagency collaboration.
- Leverage the TALENT Act to build a data and cloud literate workforce. The TALENT Act made the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program permanent, providing a pathway to bring software engineers, designers, and workers with other needed technology skills into government. The PIF program and related efforts should be expanded.
- Provide vouchers for researchers, nonprofits, and others to use cloud resources for research, analysis, and policymaking. Individuals or small organizations often lack the incentive or resources to use cloud-hosted data for analysis and decision making. Some agencies have encouraged use of open data in the cloud by providing vouchers and other incentives for researchers, nonprofits, and others.
Changing culture at Federal agencies requires strong, consistent leadership over time. Leadership at the Office of Management and Budget, the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and CDO Councils, and agency CIOs and CDOs should focus on aligning efforts and finding synergies across the domains of open data, open source, and cloud. CIOs and CDOs should play complementary roles in this effort. For example, CIOs can focus on systems and technology while CDOs work on data governance. The report recommends that the Federal government:
- Develop a plain-language toolkit to explain how these policies intersect, what they mean for agencies, and how to implement them in ways that build strength across the three areas. The government’s “open” policies are complicated documents. A plain-language toolkit could address what the policies mean for agencies, and how to implement them using accessible language.
- Leverage agency data inventories to understand agency data systems. Agencies currently struggle to understand how cloud technologies are being adopted across their different programs and offices. They should leverage existing, statutorily mandated data inventories to understand the systems on which their data live, and to make more informed decisions about how they leverage cloud technologies.
Beyond efforts to align the source code policy with open data policies, Federal policies governing open data, open source, and cloud adoption have generally proceeded on separate tracks. Currently, CIOs are very engaged in Evidence Act and Federal Data Strategy implementation—which provides useful leverage to increase data sharing at agencies—but CIOs should also consider how the two imperatives can help advance cloud and open source goals. A unified approach is needed to align open data, open source software, and cloud adoption as interrelated pieces of a larger puzzle. The report recommends that the Federal government:
- Update the key Federal data policies to better align them and fill gaps in those policies. Although the policies discussed in the report already align across several thematic areas, more can be done to integrate the documents and ensure that their implementation is mutually beneficial. The report also recommends several specific updates to individual policies.
- Update the Federal Source Code Policy to encourage government use of existing, robust Open source software (OSS) products and further engagement with OSS projects and communities. The policy should be updated to encourage agencies to make greater use of OSS products and participate in existing open source projects. The government should also analyze the effectiveness of its pilot project requiring that 20 percent of new custom code developed by the Federal government be released as OSS.
In addition to these specific recommendations, the report includes five high-level recommendations that cut across all areas of implementation. Federal leadership and agencies should:
- Maintain flexibility by avoiding one-size-fits-all approaches. This is important given the different needs, operating scales, and timelines of Federal agencies.
- Share success stories to help inspire change makers in other agencies. Success stories from agencies who have made significant progress in adopting cloud technologies, embracing OSS, and opening data can provide actionable examples and inspiration to agencies that have made less progress.
- Build the workforce to meet the demands of a government-driven by cloud, OSS, and open data. This can be accomplished through new training, updated career paths, and dedicated recruitment strategies.
- Apply user-driven approaches to operations and technologies. Many agencies have made progress in this area that should be continued and expanded across Federal technology programs.
- Learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to embrace more flexible ways of working. Agencies adapted to the pandemic by accelerating the move to remote work, sharing more scientific information, and embracing other innovations that provide models for implementing more open methods.
As agencies continue on their technology modernization journeys and work to implement laws like the Evidence Act, leaders will have many decisions to make about moving to the cloud, using OSS, and embracing open data. They will discuss these topics virtually and — hopefully soon — in person at events like Think Gov, IBM’s upcoming look at how technology is helping the government adapt, respond, and achieve its mission in a rapidly changing world. By focusing on resources, leadership, and alignment, they can help ensure that their efforts will have the desired result.
Joel Gurin is President and Matt Rumsey is Research and Communications Manager of the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. The IBM Center for the Business of Government published this report with support from RedHat.