Principles for Agency Data Quality Guidelines
Federal agencies are currently seeking public input on their proposed data quality guidelines, which raise a number of significant concerns.Specifically, agencies should address the following areas as they finalize their guidelines:
- Judicial Review. Agencies should clearly state that the guidelines do not provide any new adjudicatory authority. Nor are agencies legally bound by the guidelines and should reserve the right to depart from them when appropriate.
- Administrative Mechanisms.
- Agencies should provide a clear statement that the "burden of proof" rests upon requesters -- both to demonstrate they are an "affected person" and that a change is necessary -- not the agency;
- Agencies should limit complaints to factual corrections of data and information, and specifically exclude interpretations of data and information;
- Agencies should state that if a request has been made and responded to, a new similar request can be rejected as frivolous or duplicative;
- Agencies should limit complaints for any data quality standard that presents a potential moving target (i.e., "best available evidence") to information available at the time of dissemination;
- Agencies should limit complaints under their administrative mechanisms to information that is not already subject to existing data quality programs and measures. This avoids duplication, consistent with OMB's implementing guidelines; and
- Agencies should establish a timeliness requirement for requests after which an agency has the option to reject a request (e.g., a data quality complaint must be made within three months of the information's release).
- Reconsideration of Complaints. Section 515 of P.L. 106-554 does not address reconsideration of complaints and is far outside the scope of the statutory requirements. In that context, agency reconsideration should remain fairly informal, consistent with the fact that it is not a legally enforceable process. Agencies should show due diligence, but need not go beyond that. Agencies should also establish time limits for requesting reconsideration. Some agencies have proposed a 30 day time limit, which we support.
- Public Disclosure. A running public docket of requests and changes should be kept that includes a list of those who request a change, the nature of the request, any specific changes made, and why they were made.
- Risk Analysis. OMB has far exceeded the statutory mandate in asking agencies to "adopt or adapt" the risk assessment principles in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Agencies should make clear that they answer first to underlying statutes, as well as the particularities of each specific risk, in conducting risk analysis. Agencies should explain how current practice fits with the principles of the Safe Drinking Water Act, but they should not undertake new policies for risk analysis, imposing additional burdens, in response to OMB's guidelines. Such significant and far-reaching action must come only at the direction of Congress, which has previously considered and rejected across-the-board requirements for risk assessment.
- Peer Review. There are a number of points to make clear. First, the sort of peer review envisioned by the Safe Drinking Water Act may not be appropriate for all types of agency risk analysis, and may conflict with underlying statutes. Second, "influential" information should not require new formal, external, independent peer review to meet the "objectivity" standard. And third, where peer review is employed, peer review panels should be appropriately balanced and conflicts of interest should be avoided. Where there are conflicts, they should be disclosed not just to the agency, but also the public.
- What Information is Covered. Industry will strongly advocate that agencies label information as "influential." This should be avoided, as it would be time-consuming, burdensome, and likely interfere with dissemination efforts. Instead, agencies should detail and expand on the types of information and methods of dissemination that are not covered by the guidelines. Agencies should also narrowly define "influential" information, employing a high threshold for coverage. By limiting the coverage of these guidelines, agencies can maximize their flexibility and preserve their ability to act in a timely fashion.
- Third Party Issues. Industry wants agency guidelines to apply to dissemination by third parties if an agency initiates or sponsors the distribution, which could raise many complications. The data quality guidelines should apply only to information disseminated by the agency itself.
- Data Quality is Only One Factor to Consider. Agencies should note that data quality is only one factor to consider when disseminating information. Other issues, such as benefits to the public, should also be considered. Moreover, it should be acknowledged that public access to government data, such as the Toxics Release Inventory, serves as an incentive to correct errors and ultimately helps improve data quality.
- Information Dissemination is a Core Mission. Agencies should emphasize that public access to information is a central government responsibility. If there is any question about whether information should be disclosed and accessible to the public, agencies should err on the side of the public's right-to-know.