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Public Administration Goals for the 21st Century: #1 Make the Data Sacrosanct

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
January 19, 202

Sacrosanct (adj.): “Regarded as too important or valuable to be interfered with.”

This is the first of a series of monthly columns I will write for PA Times on the topic of setting public administration (PA) goals in the 21st century. I am grateful to PA Times for providing me this opportunity and I hope the readers find the goals I suggest worthy of discussion and action.

Most in the United States PA community entered this century thinking optimistically that it would be a time for promoting and achieving goals related to modernity and progress. As we enter 2021, the PA landscape across the United States is showing the strains of concerted efforts to weaken and undermine governing institutions and dismantle administrative functions. Judging by recent public opinion surveys, tens of millions of American adults would endorse insurrection and tyranny as an acceptable future over democratic governance. The PA community needs to push back, remembering that there are no guarantees when it comes to the survival of civilization and some mistakes ultimately may prove fatal.

If there is anything in PA that must be made absolutely sacrosanct in this century, it is the data collected and disseminated by governments for the benefit of society. We must find a way to ensure that data related to all aspects of public welfare, the environment, economics, trade and many other matters must be protected from future political interference. Thankfully, various groups of experts took steps to archive many vital datasets created by the Federal Government before 2017 that no longer are available on official websites. Other groups have continued as best they can to continue collecting data that the Federal Government stopped collecting from 2017 through 2020. There are similar efforts underway in the states where governors have shown disdain for data collection.

Here are four prime examples of why the data matters for purposes that go far beyond political disputes over policy.

  1. The United States Census. If there is a cornerstone to all public data in the United States, it is the Census. Data provided by Census is used by the public, nonprofit and private sectors for purposes that directly impact the safety and security of the country. An inaccurate, politically distorted Census is not just an academic matter; it literally is a matter of life and death.
  2. COVID-19: The various COVID-19 data dashboards also are matters of life and death. These data must be as correct as possible and provided openly and accurately to the public, the healthcare sector and all other parties involved with managing the pandemic. Furthermore, how we manage the COVID-19 data going forward needs to be a positive example for the inevitable pandemics of the future.
  3. Climate change: Data about climate change is vital for creating and updating climate risk assessments that bear on the security of trillions of dollars in United States property and the safety of millions of residents. We already have two sobering examples in this century—Hurricane Katrina and the recent wildfires in the West—that show the potential for climate-related disasters to take not just a few, but thousands of lives at a time. Additionally, our food supply is being directly impacted by climate change. Again, this data is vital for the work of the public, nonprofit and private sectors.
  4. Guns and public health: It is shameful that federal public health agencies currently are barred from collecting data about the impact of guns on health. The truth is so important: Most of the victims of gun violence are the gun owners themselves (mostly through suicide). This is the truth that will advance sensible conversations about the place of guns in America.

So what is to be done? The period 2017-2020 can be viewed as a “stress test” on the resilience of the public sector in the face of concerted, existential attacks. Of all the units within the Federal Government, the Federal Reserve proved to be the most resistant and resilient amidst the turmoil. It seems to me that the data collection and dissemination functions of governments at all levels in the United States might be made more sacrosanct, if not absolutely sacrosanct, by copying the institutional arrangements of the Federal Reserve. These institutions would include boards of governors with long, staggered terms of service that mitigate the ability of anyone to substantially interfere with their functioning in the short term, combined with an emphasis on training and expertise in the selection of board nominees. I would like to see a new institution created to govern the United States Census immediately so that we can move toward achieving a sound decennial count in 2030 while also sheltering other Census data collection from political interference.

Make no mistake about it: Nothing says that the United States is committed to remaining a leader among industrialized democracies more than reinforcing a commitment to collecting vital data and providing that data publicly regardless of political debates over policy implications. To turn away from the data is to turn away from the future and consign the country eventually to history’s well-stocked dust bin.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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