Barriers to Using Government Data: Extended Analysis of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking’s Survey of Federal Agencies and Offices

Source: Nick Hart, Kody Carmody, Bipartisan Policy Center, October 2018

Policymakers face many demands from constituents, budgetary processes, and their commitment to providing good services for the American people. This last concern is made easier when policymakers have access to reliable information to guide their decisions. But access to data and the ability to turn those data into evidence to inform decisions can be hampered by legal restrictions on access to sensitive data, constitutional constraints, and the availability of resources.

In 2016, Congress and the president established the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking and charged it with developing a strategy for addressing these barriers. During the commission’s fact-finding efforts, it launched a survey of agencies and units across the federal government to better understand existing barriers to data access and use. The data collected in the survey then provided initial evidence that the commission considered in making its recommendations.

Extended analysis of the commission survey confirms much of what the commission concluded in its final report, validating identified legal and regulatory barriers to using data. The extended analysis also leads to new findings:
1. Federal offices perceive that their roles in evidence-building activities are in niches and largely do not perceive their data collection as for a broad range of purposes like evaluation that would require better coordination across an agency.
2. Units within federal agencies exhibit wide variation in their capacity for data sharing and linkage. 3. Challenges to using data for evidence building are distributed across virtually every policy domain. Respondents identify federal tax information as especially difficult to access and use.
4. Despite some offices reportedly lacking resources to conduct evidence-building activities, it is still quite common for offices to conduct at least some data sharing and linking. However, agencies still indicate substantial gaps in developing metadata, sharing with third parties, conducting disclosure reviews, and engaging in disclosure avoidance protocols to protect data. Statistical agencies were by far better positioned for this work than other agencies…..