To Advance Missions, Treat Agency Data Like a Product

How Missions Would Benefit from Improved Intra- and Interagency Data Exchange

When novel data sources are introduced to mission analyses, solutions to long-standing challenges can suddenly become clear. To better understand how clean, organized data products from other offices, programs, and agencies could significantly boost mission achievement, consider an example from finance. “Alternative data” has long been an essential presence in the bag of tricks that hedge funds employ to stay ahead of the market. In one now-legendary instance, a fund used satellite images to count cars in big-box store parking lots to guide an investment strategy around major retailers that netted tens of millions of dollars.

In government, just as in finance, the threads of information that prove key to revealing the whole rich tapestry can come from diverse, far-flung sources. A simple step like making it possible for FAFSA applicants to autofill their tax data by pulling it directly from the IRS can reduce barriers to higher education by making applying for aid a less time-consuming, stress-inducing process. By consulting enrollment data from a program with similar criteria, Pennsylvania can identify and reach out to the senior citizens who qualify for a new prescription assistance benefit for older state residents. By pulling in data from global climate models, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a tool for the Department of Defense to predict and plan for climate change’s possible impacts on thousands of American military installations.

Ad hoc examples of improved mission outcomes deriving from government data sharing abound, but imagine what could be achieved with agency-enterprise and even whole-of-government approaches to enabling the safe, easy sharing of analysis-ready program data products. Complex federal missions overlap with each other in myriad ways, whether it’s offering different services to many of the same people—USDA food stamps and HUD housing assistance going to the same household, for example—or tackling the same problem from different angles—as in public health agencies trying to better understand a dangerous novel virus, while drug regulatory programs screen potential vaccines for safety, efficacy, and possible approval. With so much synergy, and the hot potential that generative AI and other established and emerging technologies bring to the table, the opportunities for improved government efficacy through productized intra- and interagency data sharing are near infinite.

Begin the Journey to Better Data Access

Federal agencies still have a long way to go on their data optimization journeys, but recent developments should ease the way. On the technology side, there are now open-source and commercial solutions that make productively sharing data within and between organizations easier than ever. Data mesh and associated solutions, for example, allow data to be shared without having to engage in the laborious, once-standard practice of moving it to a specially constructed central repository. In terms of policy and action, the pandemic showed how quickly noncritical barriers to sharing data can fall when lives are on the line, and the Biden Administration has launched a national strategy to tackle what’s perhaps the most important concern around data sharing in a democratic society—preserving individual privacy.

Here are some ways that federal agency leaders can help keep momentum moving in the right direction:

Don’t Ask Why Should We Share this Data, Ask How Can It Be Shared Securely and Effectively

With rapid vaccine development as a proof point and generative AI knocking at the door, the case for data sharing is now strong enough that federal managers and leaders should replace questions of whether or not a particular dataset should be shared with questions of how can it be made observable, accessible, and explainable in a secure manner for the whole of government to use for broad societal benefit.

This is one of many areas where thinking about data through a product framework can really help. To be successful, a product must cater to the needs of all of the user audiences it hopes to attract. In this case, that means federal data products must not only be easy to consume for those coming from outside an agency or program to reuse its data—they must also be responsive to the concerns of those from inside the agency who are sharing their data but want to maintain awareness of who is using it and for what. Equally essential to a given product’s success is its ability to operate without causing problems. A government data product that causes harm by exposing private or sensitive information to the wrong users will obviously fail, thus taking a product mindset requires such risks to be anticipated and mitigated.

Stay Up to Date on What’s Technically Possible

New technologies and approaches are bringing once colossal data challenges down to size. For example, worries around losing control of one’s program data can be a major obstacle to scaling a share-first mindset across an enterprise. Today you can go a long way toward alleviating such concerns by building automated usage tracking and governance into an enterprise data sharing platform, allowing those who are sharing their data to track how and by whom it is being used.

Data mesh frameworks are slaying another monster data challenge of yore: data migration. Copying everyone’s data and moving it to a central repository was difficult and cumbersome and—thank goodness—it’s no longer necessary. Data mesh means it’s possible to make data accessible without moving it around. 

Team Up Mission Experts with Technical Experts

Even artificially intelligent technology must be pointed in the right direction to succeed. Getting the most value from your data requires teaming technologists and data scientists directly with mission experts to ensure that the right questions are being asked and the right challenges are being targeted in the most technically effective ways.

Generative AI is rapidly lowering technical barriers, allowing more and more non-experts to set AI to work on their toughest challenges. But even generative AI tools like large language models must be expertly calibrated to the needs of complex subjects and missions.

The interrelated nature of federal missions means that the speed and efficiency with which information is shared between programs and agencies—if it’s shared at all—can make the difference between success and failure, and good citizen experiences and bad. Groundbreaking advances in generative AI will only make this more true moving forward, with untold possibilities hinging on how quickly agencies can clean up and open up more of their data. By adapting to think of their data as a resource to be offered as a product that is used for the benefit of the citizen, agencies can help achieve their own goals as well as those of other agencies and the nation as a whole. 

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