By the Election 2020 Academy Working Group including fellows, Nick Hart, Nancy Potok, Xavier Briggs, Susan Dudley, Sally Katzen, Randy Lyon, Shelley Metzenbaum, Sean O'Keefe, Robert Shea, Kathy Stack., and Danny Werfel.
The country is facing unprecedented challenges that public officials at all levels of government need to address quickly, effectively, and decisively. The federal government has a critical leadership role to play in taking on existing and emerging policy challenges during 2021, such as basic health and safety for the nation, while leading economic recovery and renewing public trust in government. Timely, relevant, high-quality information and insights are needed to develop and implement policies that work. And the government will continue to need reliable information to address ongoing medium- and long-term issues such as social justice, climate change, homeland security, infrastructure, and fiscal responsibility. The information government collects from individuals and businesses is critical to addressing nearly every challenge facing our nation today.
The U.S. government currently collects, manages, and disseminates more information from the American public than at any point in its history. This information is intended to support the provision of services and programs, decisions about benefit eligibility, enforcement actions, improvement of operational performance, long-term analysis of program outcomes, statistical indicators measuring the economy and society, and much more. When used responsibly and for achieving social good, this information offers a vital input for decision-makers and a resource for holding government accountable. Conversely, when managed poorly, information collected by the government can cause serious losses of privacy and well-being, as demonstrated by intrusions into federal and non-federal systems.
The center of the federal government’s information infrastructure is the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which substantially influences how information is collected, processed, disseminated, and used. OMB is statutorily charged with coordinating policies for data collection, data management, information technology systems, open data initiatives, organizational performance measurement and management, regulatory actions, grants management, financial management, program evaluation, statistical policy, information quality, and privacy. These responsibilities are in addition to OMB’s obligation to assemble the President’s Budget, which provides the fuel for the Executive Branch’s program and policy priorities, and to strengthen the management of federal agencies.
With rapid advances in data science and technology, widespread use of social media platforms, emergence of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and countless other developments, government agencies must have capable mechanisms for adapting information policy to deploy modern approaches to running programs and providing services to the public, as well as meeting emerging needs. OMB has the potential to revolutionize the ability of federal agencies and policymakers within the Executive Office of the President, Congress, and state and local governments to gain critical insights that can be used to tackle today’s and tomorrow’s complex problems. To date, for a variety of reasons, that potential has not been fully realized. Unless action is taken to restructure and reprioritize information policy and use within OMB, the President’s ability to make the bold, significant changes across government that address the nation’s biggest challenges will be severely diminished.
By the Election 2020 Academy Working Group including fellows, John Kamensky, Lisa Blomgren Amsler, John Bryson, Anne Khademian, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, F. Stevens Redburn, Michelle Sager, Antoinette Samuel, Kathy Stack.
Our country faces a crisis of national confidence in its governance processes. This crisis has deep roots that have grown silently for several decades. A recent report by a national Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship identified “a fragmented media environment, profound demographic shifts, artificial intelligence and other technological advances, economic inequality, centralized power, and climate change” as contributing to this crisis. And these stressors have reached a crescendo this year – a presidential impeachment trial; the nation’s fitful response to the health, economic, and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic; and widespread protests in virtually every corner of our country in response to police brutality toward Black Americans. Each of these has brought into a clearer focus the roots of our crisis of confidence—including poorly performing institutions and social inequity—that hinder our ability to address challenges in an effective and efficient manner.
The commission concludes: “Overall distrust of the federal government has become a persistent marker of American politics. . . . More recently, our trust in one another has also begun to show signs of decline. . . Yet the data also show that Americans do not accept this state of affairs. . . Eighty-four percent of Americans think that the level of confidence we have in the government can be improved, and 86 percent think that we can improve the level of trust we have in one another.”
The public’s trust in government has been declining for decades. Restoring Americans’ trust in democratic government will be a long-term effort. This paper, and a companion piece, offer an agenda to help change the way we govern and engage as citizens. We see this as foundational to longer-term efforts to restore trust in government that has been frayed by performance failures and can, at times, itself become a barrier to effective governance.
In addition to the long-term trend of declining trust in government, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted near-term weaknesses in our governance structure to work collaboratively across agencies, levels of government, and sectors of society. The literature shows that collaboration is founded, in part, on trust.The pandemic’s exposure of this weakness gives us further reason to try to reimagine the way the federal government and its partners can jointly address large-scale challenges.
One way to restore public trust would be to develop new, more effective governance approaches to the biggest and most complex problems facing our country and society.
Please visit the Election 2020 Homepage for more action plans.