Congress Expected to Act on Evidence Commission Recommendations

The House and Senate are reportedly readying legislation that will adopt at least some of the recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which released its final report earlier today.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, who sponsored legislation creating the commission, both indicated at today’s event that further legislation is being drafted to implement some of the commission’s recommendations. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has scheduled a hearing next Tuesday, September 12.  Legislation could move as early as the next two weeks.

The commission’s report includes 22 recommendations (see below) to increase evaluator access to data while simultaneously protecting privacy. The commission’s recommendations were approved unanimously by all 15 commissioners. Its members were appointed by congressional and administration leaders of both political parties, with five commissioners serving as experts on privacy.

The commission’s efforts on privacy drew particular praise at today’s event. Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, complimented the commissioners for the report’s “depth on privacy issues.”

The centerpiece of the commission’s recommendations is a proposal to create a new office that would act as a liaison to pre-approved researchers, helping them gain access to high-quality data sets. The office, called the National Secure Data Service, would be housed at the Commerce Department alongside the Census Bureau.

At least two bills appear likely to flow from the recommendations. The first, expected to move as early as this month, would include at least some of the commission’s least controversial items. More controversial proposals, which could involve changes to data and privacy laws, would be addressed in other legislation later this year or next.

At this point, it is unclear which recommendations will be included in the first bill. The proposed National Secure Data Service seems to be a high-priority item, since it would allow the service to staff up while Congress considers additional measures. However, it is unclear if the office will make it into the bill that is expected to move this month.

Other items are likely to be fleshed out in coming months. At today’s announcement, the commission co-chairs also announced that, although the commission itself has expired with the completion of its report, the Bipartisan Policy Center will be providing staffing support for further work.

A summary of the commission’s 22 recommendations is below:

Secure, Restricted Access to Confidential Data

  • (2-1) National Secure Data Service (NSDS): Congress and the president should enact legislation establishing the National Secure Data Service to facilitate data access for evidence building while ensuring transparency and privacy. The NSDS should model best practices for secure record linkage and drive the implementation of innovative privacy-enhancing technologies.
  • (2-2) No Data Clearinghouse: The National Secure Data Service should be a service, not a data clearinghouse or warehouse. The NSDS should facilitate temporary data linkages in support of distinct authorized projects.
  • (2-3) Privacy Rules for NSDS: In establishing the NSDS, the Congress and the president should amend the Privacy Act and the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act (CIPSEA) to require new stringent privacy qualifications as a precondition for the NSDS to acquire and combine survey and administrative data for solely statistical purposes. At the same time, the Congress should consider additional statutory changes to enable ongoing statistical production.
  • (2-4) Statistical Uses: Congress and the president should review and amend, as appropriate, statutes such as Title 13 of the U.S. Code to allow statistical uses of survey and administrative data for evidence building within the CIPSEA secure environment.
  • (2-5) Repealing Bans on Use of Data: Congress and the president should consider repealing current bans and limiting future bans on the collection and use of data for evidence building.
  • (2-6) State-collected Earnings Data Availability: Congress and the president should enact statutory or other changes to ensure that state-collected administrative data on quarterly earnings are available for solely statistical purposes. The data should be available through a single federal source for solely statistical purposes.
  • (2-7) State-collected Administrative Data Availability: The president should direct federal departments that acquire state-collected administrative data to make them available for statistical purposes. Where there is substantial federal investment in a program, federal departments should, consistent with applicable law, direct states to provide the data necessary to support evidence building, such as complete administrative data when samples are already provided.
  • (2-8) Researcher Approval Process: The Office of Management and Budget should promulgate a single, streamlined process for researchers external to the government to apply, become qualified, and gain approval to access government data that are not publicly available. Approval would remain subject to any restrictions appropriate to the data in question.

Enhancing Privacy Protections for Federal Evidence Building

  • (3-1) CIPSEA & De-identified Data: Congress and the president should amend the Privacy Act and the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act (CIPSEA) to require Federal departments to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment on de-identifed confidential data intended for public release. De-identifed confidential data subject to the Privacy Act and CIPSEA should be made available only after a disclosure review board (1) approves the release and (2) publicly provides the risk assessment and a description of steps taken to mitigate risk.
  • (3-2) Technology-based Security: The president should direct federal departments, in coordination with the National Secure Data Service, to adopt state-of-the-art database, cryptography, privacy-preserving, and privacy-enhancing technologies for confidential data used for evidence building.
  • (3-3) Designated Agency Liaisons: The president should direct federal departments to assign a senior official the responsibility for coordinating access to and stewardship of the department’s data resources for evidence building in collaboration with senior department information technology, privacy, and other leaders. A Principal Statistical Agency head, or other appropriately qualified senior official, should serve this function.
  • (3-4) Confidentiality Protections: Congress and the president should enact legislation to codify relevant portions of Office of Management and Budget Statistical Policy Directive #1 to protect public trust by ensuring that data acquired under a pledge of confidentiality are kept confidential and used exclusively for statistical purposes.

Modernizing America’s Data Infrastructure for Accountability and Privacy

  • (4-1) NSDS Established: The National Secure Data Service (NSDS) should be established as a separate entity in the Department of Commerce that builds upon and enhances existing expertise and infrastructure in the Federal government, especially at the Census Bureau, to ensure sufficient capacity in secure record linkage and data access for evidence building.
  • (4-2) NSDS Steering Committee: The NSDS should establish a Steering Committee that includes representatives of the public, federal departments, state agencies, and academia.
  • (4-3) NSDS Inventory & Auditing: To ensure exemplary transparency and accountability for the federal government’s use of data for evidence building, the NSDS should maintain a searchable inventory of approved projects using confidential data and undergo regular auditing of compliance with rules governing privacy, confidentiality, and access.
  • (4-4) NSDS Power & User Fees: The NSDS should have specific administrative and implementation flexibilities including the ability to leverage public-private partnerships and to collect and retain user fees.
  • (4-5) OMB Oversight of Data Inventory: The Office of Management and Budget should increase efforts to make information available on existing federal datasets including data inventories, metadata, and data documentation in a searchable format.

Strengthening the Evidence-Building Capacity within the Federal Government

  • (5-1) Chief Evaluation Officers: The president should direct federal departments to increase capacity for evidence building through the identification or establishment of a Chief Evaluation Officer, in addition to needed authorities to build a high performing evidence-building workforce.
  • (5-2) Learning Agendas: Congress and the president should direct Federal departments to develop multi-year learning agendas that support the generation and use of evidence.
  • (5-3) OMB Coordination: Congress and the president should direct the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to coordinate the federal government’s evidence-building activities across departments, including through any reorganization or consolidation within OMB that may be necessary and by bolstering the visibility and role of interagency councils.
  • (5-4) Streamlining Data Collection & Procurement: Congress and the president should align administrative processes to support evidence building, in particular by streamlining the approval processes for new data collections and using existing flexibilities in procurement policy.
  • (5-5) Budget & Resources: Congress and the president should ensure sufficient resources to support evidence-building activities about federal government programs and policies.

Full report.

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