Federal data is key to optimal governance and business — open it with public input

This article features Government Accountability Project and was originally published here.

The Biden administration has made it clear that data is vital to achieving its top prioritiesPresident Biden has signed data-driven executive orders on climate changeracial equityeconomic recovery and COVID-19. Data is both a strategic asset and part of infrastructure: It’s  critical to public and private efforts to improve healthcare, the environment, education, agriculture and other sectors.

To be truly transformational, government data must be open and it must meet public needs. That is why our organization, the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE), has joined with more than two dozen other groups and individuals in an open letter calling on the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to ensure stakeholder engagement and meaningful public input into the content, priorities, and management of federal data programs. Our cosigners include the Center for Data Innovation, Demand Progress, the Government Accountability Project and two academic centers.

Open data is a simple concept — “data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone” — with huge implications. Open data from national, city, state and tribal governments is a powerful tool for transparency, accountability, scientific research and economic growth.

The federal government has built significant open data capacity over the past decade, recently bolstered by the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act and the federal data strategy. However, federal open data still suffers from inadequate feedback loops between data providers and data users in the private sector, nonprofit sector and other levels of government. To make the most of open data, we need a formal, ongoing, and effective process for ensuring federal data programs meet public needs. CODE has proposed that OMB establish an Office of Public Data Engagement for this purpose, but we recognize that there may be other means to meet the same goals. Our letter calls on OMB or agencies or offices it designates to:

  1. Identify gaps and challenges in federal data resources that are not meeting public needs including gaps in data collection and issues of data quality, timeliness, interoperability, availability, and accessibility;
  2. Identify needs for federal data from state and local governments. A recent study highlighted the federal government’s need to understand the data challenges faced by governments at these levels;
  3. Support individual agencies in engagement to identify and meet public needs for their data. A toolkit of best practices would help agencies identify and leverage high-value data assets;
  4. Coordinate and support cross-agency efforts to address public data needs. For many public needsincluding Biden administration priorities, critical data is housed across several federal agencies. Cross-agency coordination is essential to get relevant data to the public;
  5. Organize and publicize use cases on the public application of federal data. Case studies would demonstrate how federal data can meet public needs, demonstrate best practices, and establish a culture of data sharing;
  6. Establish a permanent advisory council on public engagement to represent public needs for federal data. This council could build on the work of the Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building by identifying content areas and priorities for data to be shared. And,
  7. Coordinate with other federal offices and committees whose work relates to the goals outlined here, including several offices and agencies with powers related to open data.

Public engagement is necessary for the Biden administration to fully harness government data and achieve its four priorities for “building back better.” The fight to control COVID-19 depends on better data to track the pandemic and data on the social determinants of health to understand ongoing COVID-19 risk and target interventions. The economic recovery won’t move forward without better data to match job-seeking Americans to job opportunities and accurate employment and economic statistics to track progress. We will never see racial equity without better data to hold police departments accountable and reveal discrimination in housing, education, hiring and environmental policies. And more open data is essential to fight climate change on all levels, including programs to reduce carbon emissions, to adapt to a new climate and to increase city resilience. 

Much of this data already exists, but it can’t be used if it sits in government silos or isn’t released in useful ways. In the end, the public funds the federal government’s data programs and should have a direct say in ensuring how the data is put to use. The federal government must work in a consistent, systematic way with public stakeholders to ensure that the right data is made available to the right people in the right ways to solve critical national challenges.