Mar 01 2023
Data Analytics

How Effective Federal Data Sharing Is Supporting Citizen Services

New efforts to expand collaboration while protecting privacy could streamline assistance for millions of Americans.

As people contend with the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as and inflation rates not seen for decades, federal assistance programs are essential. Government benefits help millions of citizens pay for food, housing, health care and other basic living expenses. However, reaching everyone in need can be difficult. Determining who is eligible for certain programs involves complicated, often redundant processes, worsened by the struggle of many government agencies to share data effectively.

Legal issues, capacity constraints, fragmented data systems and privacy concerns all pose significant roadblocks to sharing data. Improving and extending data sharing across government to determine eligibility for benefits could help programs reach everyone in need.

Data sharing between federal agencies and state and local governments can use existing information to streamline eligibility processes and ensure that those who qualify receive benefits. These “cross-enrollments” link existing data and eligibility determinations from one public benefit program to determine eligibility for another, reducing administrative steps and burdensome enrollment procedures. For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children considers applicants eligible if they receive Medicaid benefits. Data linkages can also help with benefit renewals. Most programs require periodic reverification of eligibility, an onerous process that sometimes results in eligible participants losing their benefits. Through data sharing, recertification from one assistance program can be used to extend eligibility for another.

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Navigating the Obstacles to Data Sharing

Many government administrators are wary of developing data sharing agreements with other agencies, citing legal and privacy concerns (some of which are unfounded). Federal law and most states authorize data sharing for appropriate purposes, including benefits administration. Hesitance to share data often derives from ambiguous or inconsistent laws, or from the absence of clear regulatory guidance. This uncertainty fuels a risk-averse government culture, leaving a status quo of ad hoc data sharing and lengthy agreement processes. Clearer legal and organizational policies are needed to create a foundation to support data sharing while protecting privacy.

On a technical level, many parts of federal data infrastructure are fragmented and outdated, making data linking a challenge. Data documentation standards are lacking, and there have been gaps in updating data definitions and other important changes over time. Increasing data sharing for benefits eligibility will require significant investments to build an interoperable, modernized data infrastructure and the administrative capacity to match.

The challenge of improving government data sharing is not new. Over the past three decades, the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, E-Government Act of 2002, and other programs and pilots have attempted to improve and better integrate government data systems, with limited results.. Currently, however, a number of promising legislative and technical initiatives seek to improve government data sharing.

LEARN MORE: Virtualization and consolidation help agencies cut back on physical data centers.

Strategies for Data-Sharing Improvement

The Federal Data Strategy Action Plan calls for accelerating the “sharing and use of data for federal decision-making and operational needs.” The Chief Data Officers Council has established a Data Sharing Working Group to explore constraints on federal data sharing and provide recommendations.

Other projects include:

The NSDS pilot will explore cutting-edge ways to link government data while protecting individual privacy — a key priority in streamlining benefits eligibility for vulnerable populations that need to know their information is protected.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the status quo by highlighting obstacles to government data sharing and the need to enable and accelerate better sharing. Establishing clear legal and leadership guidance on allowable data sharing, while working to improve data infrastructure, can help build more efficient benefit verification processes and increase program enrollments, delivering vital help to those in need.

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