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Government Data Should Be Available to Everyone. Some States Are Showing the Way.

Too often, the data that states collect is inaccessible to those who need it to make decisions about education and careers. It’s encouraging that policymakers are moving toward cross-agency policies that ensure robust data access.

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Each year, state lawmakers introduce hundreds of pieces of legislation that have the potential to direct how their states collect and report data and how residents can access it to make education and workforce decisions. But in the past nine years of tracking data-related legislation across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, our organization, the Data Quality Campaign, has seen a major shift: from a singular focus on privacy and limiting who can access and use data to instead prioritizing getting people access to the information they need.

While over the past few years state legislatures were more focused on restricting discreet data uses and crafting bills focused narrowly on privacy and security, they are now considering more robust data policies. This more recent approach still centers data privacy as a component of use, while prioritizing new audiences for access to data, such as high school students. As we document in a new report, the number of bills addressing this issue is on the rise: So far this year, 20 percent of data bills (55 of 269) explicitly considered students, families or the broader public as audiences for data, compared to only 10 percent (37 of 361 bills) just two years ago.

This focus on data access policies may be new, but states have been investing in statewide longitudinal data systems for decades. Yet we still hear frustration from policymakers that these data systems aren’t working. By connecting individual-level data from participating state agencies — at a minimum those focused on early childhood, K–12, postsecondary and workforce — over time, these systems have the potential to provide valuable insights that could help people more seamlessly navigate their journeys through education and the workforce.

But the systems currently remain “on the shelf,” not meeting this potential, because in too many cases the data they contain is hard to find, static and out of date. And if data access isn’t currently working for policymakers — the people capable of putting these data systems in place — imagine how it feels to communities and members of the public.

If everyone is responsible for ensuring that people have access to data, no one is responsible. And right now, many states have in place insufficient policies and practices to make robust access possible. Ensuring that data is easy to find, interactive and up to date is an administrative responsibility that requires an administrative solution driven by legislation: cross-agency data governance.

Codifying this cross-agency data governance is the single most important step that state leaders can take to ensure robust data access for individuals, the public and policymakers. By taking that step, legislatures can ensure that state agencies will collaborate, fostering lasting data governance across leadership changes. Data governance streamlines decision-making by involving agency leaders and users to build trust and achieve articulated goals.

Fortunately, as state legislators have shifted their focus toward prioritizing access to data for different groups of decision-makers, we’ve seen positive movement. So far this year, three states — Alabama, Montana and Rhode Island — have taken a critical step toward enabling data access by enacting data governance policies. This year’s states join California, Kentucky and Maryland serving as a model for others. While these numbers may seem small, that’s a 100 percent increase in states that have codified cross-agency data governance from five years ago. And we hope to see this number go from six to 50, plus D.C., in the next five years.

As leaders, what’s in this for you? We know this work is hard and can often become just another meeting to attend, but we’re not being overly rosy about the potential of cross-agency data governance. Putting data governance structures in place creates buy-in, resources, quality and air cover for your work as policymakers and agency leaders, and it helps you meet the goals that you have for constituents.

While cross-agency data governance is a tool for data management, it’s also about you setting priorities for your state’s residents and finding a way to meet these goals. As state leaders prioritize ensuring that individuals, the public and policymakers all have access to the data they need, it’s imperative that any changes put in place not only work for the individuals navigating through their education and into the workforce but that these changes are long-lasting.

Brennan McMahon Parton is vice president for state policy and advocacy at the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization leading the effort to ensure that data works for everyone navigating their education and workforce journeys.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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