Dennis D. McDonald: How Federal Data Programs Can Survive the Trump Age

how to save federal data programs joe friday dragnet image imdb dennis d. mcdonald how us-backed data scientists must save themselves
Written by Dennis D McDonald

Can government-backed open data initiatives survive lawmaker scrutiny in the Trump era? Stakeholders will need more than a “just the facts, Ma’am” approach to survive …

dennis d. mcdonald

Fear and uncertainty are powerful motivators.

And for those of us who have over the past eight years devoted untold hours to government transparency and so-called open data programs, that’s truer than ever.

Certainly, lawmakers will be scrutinizing all kinds of federal programs over the next four years. And it’s a good bet that federally-sponsored statistical, data access and data analysis programs will be first among them. That’s because most of those don’t have obvious ties to legislation or bureaucratic mission statements.

What will happen to the programs that were set up to make previously “hidden” government data sets available to the public?

What will happen to the standard-setting and data stewardship programs that prepare data for public consumption?

And what will happen to innovative data research and analysis programs designed to improve federally-funded medical care programs?

screen shot 2017-01-05No one can answer these questions right now. When administrations change, fear and uncertainty rule.

I have my own biases, of course. I believe the public has a right to know how tax money is being spent and to what effect.

But it’s also true that many fed-backed open data efforts have so far failed to link their missions or sponsoring programs to actual, meaningful impacts or simple cost-benefit justifications.

Survival is no longer a matter of just saying, like Sergeant Joe Friday used to in the old TV series, “Dragnet,” that “it’s just the facts, Ma’am.”

The existence of data alone won’t keep federal dollars flowing toward open data initiatives.

So what can stakeholders do to ensure survival? Here are some suggestions:

Shift your data focus

Data usage matters. Access programs should be designed from the ground up, and with usage metrics and impact measures in mind. So should all fixes you make now.

If that means that money needs to be shifted from data preparation to performance and measurement, so be it.

It’s better (and safer) to have a few clearly meaningful data sets available with reliable usage and impact data than lots of files that will only be accessible because they’re easy to publish.

Be prepared to explain your data

Making data useful matters more than ever now. Government-sponsored data access programs need top-down support for the provision of real-time and human engagement between government staff, users and the intermediaries who really interact with the data.

READ: Why Americans Should Fear Lawmakers Who Fear (Or Loathe) Science

Don’t just toss the data out there, be prepared to explain what the data mean — and be prepared to do this in real time with knowledgable human support.

Everyone can’t be a data scientist.

Stop treating data as an add-on

Whatever you do, don’t treat data access as a public relations data initiatives donald trump dennis mcdonald dennis d. mcdonald joe friday dragnet

Bottom line: Make sure to treat data as a service — a key service offering — and not as a separately managed add-on.

Make sure you thoughtfully integrate your data access programs with how government does its job.

Don’t fly blind.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the trustworthiness of government statistics came under heavy attack. That’s why the research community,  nonprofits and big business, too, must demand government accountability.

And they must ensure that the gathering and publishing of authoritative performance data that reflect the actual state of our economy as well as the performance of the programs we’re funding.

Otherwise we’re just flying blind.

Not everyone needs to be a data scientist, but …

Rising professionals with an aptitude for and understanding of data science and statistics must take some responsibility for explaining what data mean to the public, just as many younger scientists must now take responsibility for making sure the public understands what research is telling them.

joe friday just the facts ma'am data programs dennis d mcdonald anewdomain big data donald trumpI’ve spent the greater part of a decade crunching numbers. And sure, I get the joys and fascination of data analysis, modeling, and interpretation.

As more and more data are gathered and analyzed, though, we need to make sure the public understands and appreciate the basics of data and data analysis. Everyone needs to know what questions to ask when numbers start getting thrown around.

After all, given the current anti-government atmosphere, the private sector must speak up about the value of government collected statistics on unemployment, productivity, prices and educational performance. And they can’t do that unless you’ve made that value clear from the start.

I’m not suggesting that everyone become a data scientist. I am suggesting that basic data literacy is as critical to our future as ongoing concerns and reading, writing and arithmetic.

After all, if we really think, for example, that we can bring those manufacturing jobs back to the Midwest and the Rust Belt, how will we even know in four years if we’re being successful?

We won’t. That’s yet another reason why this kind of preparation and forethought is critical if we are to convince people that the numbers are reliable the next time someone fires away at them.

Make no mistake: They will.

For aNewDomain in Washington, I’m Dennis D. McDonald.

An earlier version of this column ran on Dennis D. McDonald’s site. Check it out here. 

Ed: Here is Sergeant Joe Friday with his “departure speech” to a 1968 teen on Dragnet.  Is it prescient or preachy? You be the judge.

Cover image and inside images from Dragnet, featuring Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday:, All Rights Reserved; Joe Friday office shot, ToobWorld blog, All Rights Reserved; Joe Friday “just the facts, Ma’am” graphic:, All Rights Reserved.