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On a technical level, many parts of federal data infrastructure are fragmented and outdated, making data linking a challenge.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.
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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Data Modernization Initiative, a pandemic-prompted project to modernize data infrastructure in federal and state agencies
- 18F’s Eligibility APIs Initiative
- The recently funded National Secure Data Service pilot, a culminating project of the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building
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.