Changing the Way we do Business in the U.S. through Data Sharing

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Guest blog written by Rachel Cychosz

Sharing. It’s the concept of “using, occupying, or enjoying something jointly with others” or “giving a portion of something to others”. It’s a concept that I’m confident most people learned as young children. It’s a simple concept, that’s why we learn it as children, because it’s something that can be understood without substantial explanation or justification, and as children it just makes sense. Why then, does sharing seem to be such a complex challenge for adults?

Working in government is a unique and interesting journey, always navigating to find a balance between meeting the demands of a political machine that yearns for immediate change to prove the success of their regime (often without understanding, advocating for, or appropriating the resources necessary to adequately address the request) and being able to spend sufficient time thinking through a given problem to find the best solution. Over the past seven years, I’ve worked in both policy development and more direct program management. I’ve struggled with different challenges, but ultimately found that much of it comes down to the same issues – how we choose to approach a problem.  Too often, the programs and policies that I’ve worked with approach problems with a direct to solution approach. More often than not, without much if any, consideration for the root cause of the problem, a “solution” is identified and pursued. There are any number of shortfalls that come out of this approach, but the most obvious is that it often only scratches the surface of the problem, resulting in (often another) failed attempt at a novel idea, which discourages program staff and disincentivizes innovation.

Going into this course, I was seeking a fresh perspective and a different way to think about and approach the problems I was facing in my program. Thinking back over the time since starting the course, PDIA was so appealing to me because it offered a mechanism to address exactly what I had been so frustrated about, but hadn’t been able to articulate a solution to addressing. The concept of not looking at something as one single problem, but diving into it more deeply to get to the root cause, find entry points, and apply an iterative approach to problem solving, was enlightening. It offered a different way of thinking, that so effectively changed the way we could approach new projects and program development.

Turning those concepts that spoke so clearly to me, into reality, was a different obstacle. Beyond the politics and resource limitations, change – whether to process or style of approach – is difficult. For my problem, the first challenge was convincing people to take a step back – even though we had previously thought maybe we had a path forward – and re-consider if we were solving for the right problem. The problem at hand – data sharing – has so many facets, even just within my organization, that just defining the problem was an arduous task. What do we mean by data sharing? What does this include? What does it not include? How is privacy of external data impacted? How is sensitive information protected? Depending on who you talked to – the problem was different, the important aspects were different, and the solution was different. In some ways, it offers a great canvas for PDIA – because there are so many entry points at which to start – but in a lot of ways that also made it over-whelming.

For the first few months, the majority of time was spent on just discussing the problem and figuring out what the entry points could be. The biggest successes we found, were really in engaging with stakeholders – identifying and bringing the right people to the table, yes, but also keeping them engaged on an ongoing basis and using them as a conduit to other stakeholders that we hadn’t considered previously. It quickly became clear that although there are specific positions that have more substantial, direct roles in data sharing, the execution and the utility of sharing data,  touches every aspect of our agency – programs, systems, staff, senior executives, other agencies, other levels of government, other organizations that we partner with, etc.  It became clear, that those perspectives were integral to the success of implementing a new policy on data sharing. As we progressed through the problem, we started with small things– like developing templates for sharing agreements that could be used by field staff, which help them do their work more efficiently; or developing a guidance tool for program staff to better understand the privacy restrictions they needed to consider before approving sharing of data. While seemingly minor in the broader scheme of what we were trying to accomplish, they ensured that business could still go on (i.e. data could be shared) while we were hammering out the details of the overarching policy that adequately included everyone and everything that needed to be considered.

Data sharing is not solved for my agency, but we’ve made progress and we’ve been successful (so far) in keeping people engaged, which makes it easier to envision the success of this initiative.

This continues to be a journey to navigate, but I look forward to continuing the journey, not only on this issue, but in all the other ways in which my agency may be able to use this approach to improve the way that we implement programs and address the problems that face the organization. For anyone else working through the process, the best advice I could give is to stick with it, there will be highs and lows and distractions (i.e. everything else we have to do!) throughout the process, but the outcome will only prove to be more impactful and long-lasting if you can stick with it, learning and adapting throughout.

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

To learn more about Implementing Public Policy (IPP) watch the course and testimonial video, listen to the podcast, and visit the course website.

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