The pandemic is bad, we need the capability to measure just how bad

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If the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic are similar to other global crises historically, there will be long-lasting effects on the businesses, communities and households for years to come. Understanding just how much the crisis affects our country’s population should be an imperative for policymakers. To do so, our country’s research community needs the tools – and the data – to monitor and evaluate the success of our policy interventions to protect public health.

Unfortunately, today the country is ill-equipped for such a task. While ongoing work to implement new federal data laws and practices have put the government on the precipice, the crisis indicates we need much more rapid improvement. The American people will need high-quality and reliable information to understand the current crisis and better prepare for the next one. We cannot wait a decade for that to happen.

Here are five ideas for quickly improving the country’s ability to understand the breadth of the current crisis as policymakers develop solutions to emerging problems:

  1. Rapidly Establish a National Secure Data Service. The federal government’s fragmented data management infrastructure means there are currently major gaps in sharing data. This is the case even when the purpose is to develop collective insights about the population, without revealing the identities of individuals or using the microdata to change benefits or rights. The U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking’s 15 political appointees – Republicans and Democrats – unanimously proposed this solution in 2017. The lack of authority to securely share information among agencies in the current pandemic could have been prevented if action had been taken sooner to establish a data service, but it’s not too late to leverage and vastly improve upon existing capabilities to more meaningfully use data. The overdue Advisory Committee on Evidence Building could be a critical resource for supporting this new infrastructure.
  2. Expand Access to Income and Earnings Data for Researchers. Current legal restrictions limit researchers’ access to a system called the National Directory of New Hires, even when studying important policy problems. This system provides insights about new employment and earnings across the country. Limited and secure access could be provided for researchers and evaluators, building on recommendations from the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations. Both agreed this was a good idea, and requested that Congress advance the proposal. These data already exist and, if provided access, researchers can use this information to generate valuable evidence that guides the policy actions that will help our economy and our country recover.
  3. Build a Stronger Ecosystem for Compiling National COVID-19 Testing and Health Data. We now know there are extensive limitations to the existing infrastructure for monitoring COVID-19 across the American population. With many of the existing state tests to detect coronavirus occurring in national labs in the absence of national-scale data collection, data scientists cannot adequately develop artificial intelligence or machine learning algorithms to predict severity of the outbreak or estimate potential future risks. Improving this ecosystem, building on existing vital statistics and health surveillance activities should be an imperative.
  4. Finalize Rule for Increasing Access to Data for Evidence. In 2018 Congress unanimously passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, or Evidence Act, which provides vast new capabilities and authorities for better use of government data to support good decision-making. A key provision of that law enabled data sharing for certain restricted purposes and within a strong privacy-protective framework. Implementing the provision requires the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to issue a regulation – and it should make that rule available as soon as possible using authority for an Interim Final Rule.
  5. Fund the Evidence Act Implementation. As Congress and the president consider a $1 trillion supplemental aid package in response to the coronavirus pandemic, our elected leaders must include resources to fully fund implementation of the Evidence Act so that once we are through the pandemic we can better understand the impacts of policy decisions that were made, ensuring we are prepared to improve our government’s policies for the future.

Using data must be a key component of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and also a core feature of future planning to ensure the policies implemented today are sound and achieve the desired outcomes for the American people. These decisions are so important to our country’s future that evidence must guide our policies, and we can’t have useful evidence without good data.

Nick Hart is the CEO of the Data Coalition, President of the Data Foundation, and a fellow in the National Academy of Public Administration and the Bipartisan Policy Center. Nancy Potok is the former Chief Statistician of the United States, served as a member of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, and is a fellow in the National Academy of Public Administration.

Tags Barack Obama Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump
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