October 19, 2017Policy Report

Unleashing the Power of Administrative Data: A Guide for Federal, State, and Local Policymakers

by Robert Doar and Linda Gibbs

Local/Nonprofit/ 2017/

Executive Summary

Our recommendations are grounded in our firsthand experience with government data systems as former leaders at the city and state levels, where we oversaw programs including cash welfare, food assistance, public health insurance, child welfare, homelessness, probation and corrections, and child support enforcement. In each of these policy areas, we witnessed immense potential for all levels of government—working with nonprofit organizations and academic partners—to harness the power of data to maximize the impact of taxpayer dollars and improve services for the public.

We believe what policymakers need most—especially at the state and local levels—is practical guidance for overcoming the myriad bureaucratic, legal, and cultural hurdles that prevent government leaders from unlocking the full potential of administrative data.

Our key findings culminate in five recommendations for policymakers:

First, tackle data security and privacy concerns by developing a clear and shared understanding of privacy laws, both within government and with the stakeholder community. Implement appropriate technology to ensure personally identifiable information will remain confidential.

Second, create standard definitions for reporting administrative data and require implementation as a condition of local, state, and federal funding.

Technological solutions can offer users a “continuum of access” that is aligned with their legal right to see and use the data. Most importantly, data must be used by researchers and policymakers to improve their quality.

Third, take steps to instill a sharing and learning organizational mind-set. Implement a governance framework that is guided by shared values and transparency to facilitate appropriate sharing of administrative data.

Fourth, create ease and comfort with using and sharing data by implementing data sharing in a tiered approach and open greater access over time.

Fifth, at the federal level, standardize the collection of data and aggressively pursue data-sharing agreements with state and local governments. By linking administrative and survey data, US statistical agencies and independent researchers can more accurately report on Americans’ real conditions.

In addition, this paper offers exemplars of where this work has been done well at the state and local level to help address social challenges, from preventing child abuse to addressing homelessness. At the federal level, it provides a road map for the US Census—in partnership with other federal agencies—to take a lead role in driving systemic change in how we share and use data.