The Federal government is poised to issue a lengthy list of directions in the near future that will irrevocably launch agencies into a new era of data awareness, leverage, practice, and usage – along with all of the practical and policy work that goes along with it.

What Happens Next

The near-term watch is on for release by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) of the final version of the year-one action plan that sets Federal agency agendas for implementing the Trump administration’s Federal Data Strategy. Very broadly, the strategy tells Federal agencies to treat data as a “strategic asset,” and then sets forth a series of practical steps for them to take over the next year to help make the policy’s aim a reality.

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“The challenge will be to establish clear policies in how the data stream is being managed or accessed,” said David Bailey, senior director of U.S. Public Sector Technical Sales at Veritas. “Government will have to become much more agile and automated in the way data is delivered, stored and accessed.”

At our last check on the action plan’s progress, Commerce Department Principal Deputy Secretary Karen Dunn Kelley indicated the final version of the action plan will be ready to release sometime in November (OMB had estimated earlier this year that the action plan would go final in August). Unless the final action plan differs wildly from its draft version, Federal agencies will have a lot on their plates over the next year to stand up the strategy and its aims.

Agency Checklist

The action plan will require individual Federal agencies to take steps to:

  • Improve data resources for artificial intelligence research and development;
  • Constitute a diverse data governance body;
  • Assess data and related infrastructure maturity;
  • Identify opportunities to increase staff data skills;
  • Identify data needed to answer key agency questions; and
  • Identify priority datasets for agency open data plans.

Federal Management To-Do List

At the Federal management tier, the to-do list includes:

  • The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will create an agency data council;
  • The General Services Administration (GSA) will develop a repository of tools and resources to implement the Federal Data Strategy;
  • The Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology will develop a data protection toolkit; and
  • The President’s Management Council will improve management and use of financial management data assets, among others.

PMA Policy Catalysts

How did we get here?

Briefly, the seed of the expected November policy release from OMB is the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) issued by the White House in March 2018. The Trump Administration set “Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset” as one of its main goals in the PMA, and the coalescing of new laws and existing work on data guidance has culminated in a critical mass of guidance for agencies to follow.

Chief among those efforts is the Federal Data Strategy, which sets long-term principles and practices, while giving agencies annual action plans to address specific near-term priorities. Adding even more fuel to the fire is the artificial intelligence (AI) executive order pushing agencies to make AI-relevant data available for research.

A key point within the Federal Data Strategy is to assign value to agency data, and “appropriately prioritize and document resource decisions,” while managing data in an efficient manner for the long term. Prioritizing agency data that can address core mission issues is a major part of the congressional requirement to inventory existing data. While some new data may be required, having visibility over the inventory can bring the right datasets to light to improve agency performance.

“When you know where data is, you can make it available to the business and put it in a location that’s more beneficial to the end users. You can also position data in a place that’s more affordable so business and mission units can perform the analytics they need, ultimately deriving a real mission, or business, benefit,” Bailey said.

Action in Congress

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress has moved the ball forward in a big way with two impactful pieces of legislation.

The first is the OPEN Government Data Act – signed into law in January 2019 – which codifies, and requires Federal agencies to publish their open data using standardized machine-readable data formats and metadata. The second is the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act that creates processes for the Federal government to modernize data management practices and encourage use of data to inform policy decisions.

Notably, the Evidence Act required agencies to name chief data officers (CDOs) by July 13, and create data governance bodies by Sept. 30 to oversee Federal Data Strategy implementation at the agency level. However, working out the role of the CDO within each organization is still far from finished, as it requires longer-term discussions about the value of data and the agency’s goals.

“It’s not just about the volume of data,” said Eileen Vidrine, CDO at U.S. Air Force. “The key is making data open and available,” she said, noting that there’s a balancing act between sharing and guarding important Air Force data.

“A comprehensive, cohesive data strategy takes into account IT’s major requirements for proper data management and cybersecurity: making data available to meet the mission, protecting it from unknown circumstances and enabling stakeholders to make decisions on the data that are in line with mission needs,” Bailey noted.

Industry Looking Forward

Speaking at the ACT-IAC Imagine Nation 2019 conference, Margaret Weichert, deputy director of Management at OMB, said that the PMA aims to drive the Federal government to become more agile in improving citizen service.

“Agility powered by IT” is a key ingredient to earn back citizens’ trust in government, she said. “Good ideas abound, but execution is the key,” Weichert said. Agencies might “spend a lot of time examining the problem, while the data continues to grow and the problem only gets bigger. The sooner agencies embark on a plan, the better,” Bailey said. “Recognize that managing your data stream is less risk overall to the organization than allowing the status quo to persist.”

“It’s about solving mission challenges that have a real impact on all of us as citizens,” Bailey added.

Want to dive deeper into the Federal Data Strategy and other critical data management issues? Join MeriTalk at Veritas Public Sector Vision Day on December 10 in Washington, D.C. and hear from the Department of Defense, Department of Veteran Affairs, Government Accountability Office, General Services Administration and more on best practices for taking control of agency data.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.