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Congressional Support for a Call to Make Federal Data Collection Smarter, Safer

Is building research and data privacy a neutral enough goal to find bipartisan support in Congress?

The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking issued its final report Thursday afternoon, calling for Congress and the White House to modernize the country's infrastructure for collecting and protecting data, and Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray  of Washington state pledged to introduce new legislation—tentatively dubbed the "Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act"—to begin implementing some of the commission's two dozen recommendations.

"No matter what any of us think about government in general, no matter what we think about programs or investments in particular, surely we should be able to agree we should do everything we can to make sure that they work as well as possible," Murray said in a briefing on the report, "not just because we wish them to, not just letting blind ideology or partisanship guide the way ... but by using evidence, facts, science, making sure our policies are aligned with what we actually know works and what doesn't."

Congress charged the $3 million, 18-month commission to come up with ways to coordinate research and data use across federal agencies while protecting data privacy and security. Its recommendations don't focus just on education, but the findings are expected to shape reauthorization of critical and long-overdue education laws governing research and data—including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002.

"The commission envisions a future in which rigorous evidence is created efficiently, as a routine part of government operations, and used to construct effective public policy," said Katherine Abraham, the chair of the commission and a researcher with the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland.

The 15 bipartisan commission members unanimously endorsed an array of strategies to update the nation's federal data systems, including:

  • Creating a "National Secure Data Service," which would allow researchers to temporarily link existing data sets in a secure way to allow statistical analysis of the data without creating a single data clearinghouse. The United Kingdom uses a similar system called the Administrative Data Research Network, as the video below explains:
  • Developing a standard procedure for researchers to qualify for access to the data while safeguarding privacy.
  • Creating an online portal that shows the public exactly how the confidential data which the government collects are used, and to publicize regular audits of the system for compliance with data privacy, confidentiality, and access rules. 
  • Assess the privacy risk of federal data that have had identifiable information stripped for public use to improve protections.
  • Update the technologies used to protect identifiable data in federal agencies.
  • Establish a "chief evaluation officer" in each agency to coordinate evaluations and policy research. For education, this would likely fall to existing research officers in the Institute of Education Sciences.

"The commission's recommendations underscore a clear commitment across government to transparency about outcomes and how data is used and protected," said Aimee Guidera, the president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign, in response to the report. "They also reinforce the importance of considering the ecosystem of state and federal roles and responsibilities for making smart investments in education and other public goods based on evidence."

Ryan and Murray plan the first related bill to focus on "expanding [data] access, modernizing privacy, and strengthening the capacity for evaluation" based on the commission's recommendations—though it remains to be seen whether the deeply divided Congress will back either the initial bill or the likely more complicated updates to FERPA and other federal data laws.

"The commission has provided us with a set of specific recommendations that will help us develop the tools to know what is working and what is not working. It sounds so simple, but it's just not what we've been doing for a long time," Ryan said, adding, "We now have the expertise, the idea for legal protections, and the technology to do this. I think it's high time we just agree where we agree and go and agree—that's something we are trying to do a little bit more of these days." 

You can see the full discussion of the final report below:

 

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