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Solving the Federal Data Sharing Problem: Part 1

by John Carr


If you ask any federal employee what their biggest challenge is, chances are they would tell you that it’s gaining access and sharing federal data with their stakeholders. From climate-related data to the latest drug trials to digital evidence related to a potential crime, the federal government has a vast and critical responsibility to be good stewards of data and collaborate effectively. If the federal government’s ability to effectively share and receive data can affect our daily lives, health, and justice system, then why is this such a challenge? 

First of all, the federal government is huge. In 2019, the White House published a report noting that there are over 2.1 million federal employees, the country’s single highest direct employer. Comparing it to a complex web is an understatement when you consider that there are over 400 separate agencies, all with unique missions and workforces (most of which are outside the DC area), an army of temporary contractors from different companies, and not to mention countless stakeholders across the globe.

Additionally, the truth is that most agencies have barriers to federal data sharing. This includes the use of many legacy data systems (it’s not uncommon to see IT systems that are 20+ years old), extensive and sometimes confusing policies, and a vast array of internal and external stakeholders technical needs to consider. 

These are the truly hairy challenges worth solving because of the potential benefits to all involved. These data-sharing challenges can manifest in mundane ways, like the ability to share drivers license information across state lines, to more complex scenarios, such as navigating conflicting data-handling policies.

In Our Daily Lives

Most of us have a driver’s license, and a 2017 GAO Report highlights the complexities of what one might assume to be a simple federal data-sharing use case: making states’ driver and vehicle data available for public safety and consumer protection purposes. According to the report, the appropriate public and private entities receive this data through the Department of Transportation and the Department of Justice’s owned systems.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlights all kinds of considerations for improving access to this data. This includes cooperative agreements with non-profit organizations (American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators) meant to run the day-to-day operations, PII management, and each state’s own technical and cost barriers to ingest and fully participate in making data available through these systems.

We often don’t think about these data challenges, and just expect them to be taken care of. Still, these public-facing, data-sharing challenges are rarely simple, even when sharing one type of information, because of the massive scale of data sources and stakeholders.

Improvements in Our Health

You can probably imagine the Department of Health and Human Services, NIH Data Sharing, having many private and public stakeholders that need to collaborate to work towards a common goal. For example, say, developing a vaccine for a pandemic. In their policy, NIH states that they “… recognize that federal data sharing may be complicated or limited, in some cases, by institutional policies, local IRB rules, as well as local, state and federal laws and regulations, including the Privacy Rule.” Why does the challenge still exist if NIH recognizes it? 

In short, because developing new policy can be very difficult and take several months or even years. NIH and any other federal agency have to follow a well-intentioned but often cumbersome regulatory and rulemaking process, consisting of no less than a dozen stages that include congressional oversight and multiple public comment and adjudication steps. But, navigating this red tape can be the difference between life and death for a person suffering from a disease and the doctor trying to access information through a drug trial.

Illuminating the Truth and Elevating the Justice System

The data that the investigative branches collect as evidence must find its way to the litigation division(s) in order to gain insights and develop a case to bring to court. Complications can arise pretty quickly depending on the type of crime, evidence, the entity responsible for the investigation (federal, state, and/or local), and court-related dependencies.

Along with both parties having, in some scenarios, conflicting data-handling policies, the limitations to sharing federal data effectively can often be a “people problem.” That is to say, an agent from an investigative branch doesn’t realize the downstream needs of their colleagues (i.e., the data produced must be ingestible into their review platform).

The attorney may also not be aware that the agent’s system can produce a load file that could work well for their ingestion and must simply ask the agent for it. In these circumstances, a person’s lack of awareness of the complete data journey (e.g., where it comes from, where it is stored, where it’s going, and why) and empathy for each other can be the biggest obstacles.

Data sharing is a crucial aspect of federal agencies’ workflows, but the challenges it presents can often create unnecessary complexity. Issues — such as circumnavigating cumbersome institutional policies — can muck up federal employees’ efficiency. However, the federal government has begun tackling them via new management practices, improvements to access and identity management systems, educating the federal workforce, and new policies. With time, federal data sharing will become less of a tedious process.

Are you interested in learning how Everlaw can help federal agencies solve challenges like those mentioned above? Learn more at the Everlaw for the Federal Government page.