Budget

Here are the signs agencies are giving on federal data initiatives

Recently released budget proposals show that federal agencies are preparing to take responsibility for implementing data initiatives shaped by the Office of Management of Budget over much of last year.

For more than a year, top White House and agency IT officials have discussed how to use the federal government’s data to implement evidence-based policies and drive a more efficient government. Now, after OMB headed an effort on the federal data strategy and its year-one action plan last year, fiscal 2021 congressional justifications show that responsibilities for data initiatives are shifting to federal agencies.

Throughout budget requests, agencies explain several efforts both planned and underway to set up the infrastructure necessary to support them as they seek to implement the “Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018,” a law signed last year which dictates data-related efforts agencies had to undertake, including plans, inventories and agency governance structures.

“We’re trending in the right direction, particularly because agencies seem to .... really own the implementation of the [Evidence] Act and [are] saying 'we are now identifying in a real way what are the resources we need, what are the structures we need, and there is some restructuring we need to do,” said Kate Tromble, vice president of federal policy at Results for America, an evidence-based policy making nonprofit.

In their budget requests, several cabinet-level agencies detail their plans to fund data efforts. The Department of Agriculture asked for $2.5 million to support its implementation of the Evidence Act. The Department of Commerce asks for $250,000 for its chief data officer in its budget request. The Department of Housing and Urban Development budget also specifies $6 million to support its new chief data officer office and data analytics initiative. The Small Business administration wants $700,000 to implement the Evidence Act.

Several other departments also acknowledge the CDO and Evidence Act in their justification books.

In the Treasury Department’s FY21 budget request, it asks for $723,000 for the implementation of the Evidence Act, including $472,000 for its office of the chief data officer. But throughout the department’s request, Treasury components specifically outlined the evidence-building activities they have undertaken to make evidence-based decisions, an extra step that other cabinet agencies didn’t take.

“There are a lot of promising signals that come out around the budget about how agencies are beginning to implement the Evidence Act,” said Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition.

Chief data officers are a critical voice on departments’ data journeys because they will lead and coordinate data efforts outlined in the federal data year-one action plan, which requires agencies across government to establish comprehensive data inventories, identify data needs, identify priority data assets, along with several other efforts related to enterprise data management and protection.

Agencies were required to appoint chief data officers by mid-July. Departments across government took different approaches, with some appointing an individual into the role and others adding CDO responsibilities onto another chief executive. Top OMB officials have said they don’t have a problem with the approaches.

As part of the year-one action plan, departments have to submit agency “learning agendas," in which agencies will identify priorities, goals and questions for evidence-based policymaking. In the Department of Homeland Security’s FY21 congressional justification, officials reflected on the learning agenda with candor, calling it a "monumental undertaking.”

Agencies, of course, are in different places. SBA, for example, wrote that it finished its learning agenda and outlined several future plans for assessing the effectiveness of policies and programs, or its evaluation efforts. The EPA, on the other hand, said it would complete its draft learning agenda in FY21.

In their justifications, agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency outlined measures they plan to take to comply with the Evidence Act. For example, EPA officials wrote that it will develop a “comprehensive data management strategy” to support the Evidence Act that include deploying “new data analysis, data visualization, and geospatial tools in a cloud-based framework to enable analysis and provide the basis for informed decision making.”

Several agencies also requested boosts for their program evaluation efforts. One significant ask came from the EPA, which requested $2 million for its new evaluation office, an office it hasn’t set up despite direction from OMB. That development is another example of agencies taking responsibility for the Evidence Act.

“What that tells us is that they are trying to be thoughtful about putting the right person in that capacity, but also recognizing that they might need some additional funding to really make it effective,” Hart said.

The Department of Health and Human Services asked Congress for $16 million for its evaluation work related to treating and preventing HIV. HUD requested a $3.9 million increase for its evaluation office. Other agencies, such as the Department of Transportation asked for increases in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for its evaluation efforts. Hart said that the amount of evaluation requested shows that the “federal bureaucracy is recognizing both the value of evaluations, but also the need for them to make better decisions and improve programs over time.”

While the president’s budget is merely a signal of administration priorities, the data initiatives outlines by agencies will serve as a indication of needs to Congress. Efforts detailed in the first full budget since the Evidence Act was signed shows several positive signs.

“The mere fact that agencies are acknowledging and publicly stating where they need resources is also helpful,” Hart said. “It’s a bit of information that Congress can use to ensure agencies that do need financial support can receive it.”

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