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Jan 14 -- As part of the implementation of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requests comments on the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy's recommendation for a Standard Application Process (SAP) for requesting access to certain confidential data assets. The SAP is to be a process through which agencies, the Congressional Budget Office, State, local, and Tribal governments, researchers, and other individuals, as appropriate, may apply to access confidential data assets accessed or acquired by a statistical agency or unit for the purposes of developing evidence. This new process would be implemented while maintaining stringent controls to protect confidentiality and privacy, as required by the law. Comments should be submitted by March 16, 2022.
 
Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy (ICSP) is to advise and assist the Director of OMB in coordinating the Federal statistical system and setting statistical policy. The ICSP is chaired by the Chief Statistician of the United States and membership includes the heads of the 13 recognized statistical agencies, or in the case of an agency that does not have a statistical agency or unit, the agency's Statistical Official.

In that capacity, and in order for the statistical system to comply with this Evidence Act requirement, the ICSP submitted a set of recommendations to OMB for a policy that would establish a standard application process (SAP) for requesting access to certain confidential data assets accessed or acquired by designated statistical agencies and units. OMB is seeking public comment on the ICSP's recommendations.
 
The proposed policy would impose requirements on all recognized statistical agencies and units under 44 U.S.C. 3561(11) and 3562. . . . At the time of this proposal, there are sixteen designated statistical agencies and units:
 
Bureau of Economic Analysis
Bureau of Justice Statistics
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Census Bureau
Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, SAMHSA
Economic Research Service
Energy Information Administration
Microeconomic Surveys Unit, Federal Reserve
National Agricultural Statistical Service
National Animal Health Monitoring System, USDA
National Center for Education Statistics
National Center for Health Statistics
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics, SSA
Statistics of Income Division, Treasury
 
Under the proposal, other Executive branch agencies or organizational units may, at their discretion, and with the concurrence of the SAP Governance Body, utilize the SAP to accept applications for access to confidential data for the purpose of developing evidence. Agencies facilitate access to confidential data by enabling applicants to submit proposals through the SAP. When making use of the SAP to accept such proposals, it is proposed that an Agency must adopt and abide by the entirety of this policy for those data assets, including use of the data inventory, common application, review criteria, timelines, appeals process, progress tracking, and reporting, with appropriate exceptions for legal and regulatory requirements as allowed for in the proposed policy.
 
Interagency Council on Statistical Policy Recommendation
 
OMB seeks comment on this proposal. We have made a preliminary determination that the proposal also meets the requirements of the Evidence Act and has the potential to reduce the burden to applicants while maintaining currently strong access and confidentiality protections.

In summary, the application process begins with an applicant identifying a confidential data asset for which a statistical agency or unit is accepting applications for the purpose of developing evidence, and ends with the agency or unit's determination whether to grant access to the applicant. In the case of an adverse determination, the application process ends with the conclusion of an appeals process if the applicant elects to appeal the adverse determination. The scope of this proposal excludes decisions about the mode of access to confidential data or methods by which data are protected from unauthorized disclosure.

The implementation of the proposed SAP would include an online portal that serves as the primary location for researchers and others seeking to identify and apply for access to confidential data available for evidence building purposes. The SAP Portal would include an SAP Data Inventory and searchable metadata on confidential data assets for which evidence-building applications are being accepted, and would be populated by statistical agencies and units. The goal of the policy is for the metadata to be sufficient to facilitate data identification and ensure that potential applicants can find and access adequate documentation on available data assets. The SAP Portal would also include a common application form that is standardized across statistical agencies and units and datasets, except where unique legal or regulatory requirements create a need for additional fields.

Upon receipt of a completed application, statistical agencies and units would apply a common set of criteria when reviewing both the proposed project and the applicant. When reviewing a proposed project, statistical agencies and units would ensure that the data use is for exclusively statistical purposes; the use is allowed under relevant statutes, regulations, notices, agreements, and other requirements governing the use of the data; that appropriate statistical disclosure limitations could be applied to the relevant data; there is a demonstrated need for the data; the project is feasible; and the public trust can be maintained. When required by statute or regulation, statistical agencies or units may consider additional criteria as appropriate. . . .

The timeline for review of applications would be standardized across statistical agencies and units under the proposal. For applications involving a single agency it is proposed that review of project should occur within twelve (12) weeks, and for applications involving requests for data access from multiple agencies the review should occur within twenty-four (24) weeks to allow for the additional complexity and coordination. Agencies who cannot meet the required timing would be able to seek an extension when appropriate. Requests that require the statistical agency or unit to obtain approval from entities not subject to the proposed policy are not subject to the timeframes. Under the proposal, review of applicants should occur no later than three (3) weeks after a project receives approval, unless the review requires a new background investigation.

Upon receipt of an adverse determination, it is proposed that applicants have the opportunity to appeal the decision to a review body within the statistical agency or unit, when the grounds for the adverse determination are under the control of the relevant statistical agencies or units. . . .

The SAP Portal will provide applicants with up-to-date tracking of applications throughout the review process and will also provide public reporting of key information with regard to the operation of the SAP, such as the review status and final determination for every project, as required by the Evidence Act.
 
OMB welcomes comment on any and all aspects of this policy. We have also identified specific areas of interest for comment, including:

Metadata standards:
To provide flexibility over time, the proposed policy would require the SAP Program Management Office (PMO) to develop and maintain a set of metadata standards subject to approval by the SAP Governance Body.
1. Should key metadata elements be considered as part of the policy? If so, which?
2. What are the key metadata elements that the PMO should consider in its development of the metadata standards?
3. Would it be valuable for the metadata standards to comply with any other existing metadata standards? If so, which?

Application windows:
The proposed policy would allow each individual statistical agency or unit to establish their own time window during which applications will be accepted for a given data asset as a way to manage resource constraints. This approach is designed to maximize services from higher capacity statistical agencies, which have resources to keep an application window open all year in many cases, but at the potential expense of standardization across statistical agencies, because some lower capacity statistical agencies may not have the resources to review applications on a constant flow basis.
4. How could this proposed approach be improved, if at all? If instead the policy were to require all agencies to align to a common fixed-length window, we believe that has the potential to lead to a decrease in availability for higher capacity agencies.
5. How could this policy be implemented in a way that maximizes its usefulness? How could the following aspects help:
i. Frequency of windows for accepting applications ( e.g., annual, quarterly)?
ii. Minimum number of days for accepting applications ( e.g., 60 days) for each window?
iii. Alignment of acceptance windows across statistical agencies or products?
iv. Any other features to assist applicants seeking data from multiple statistical agencies for a single project?

Applicant evaluation:
The proposed policy would introduce four standardized authorization levels and four standard review criteria against which applicant(s) will be evaluated. The authorization levels are designed to align generally with currently used access modes as described above. They will also need to align with accessibility levels to be defined in an upcoming OMB regulation required under 44 U.S.C. 3582. The standard review criteria would respond to the requirement for an explicit, consistent, and identical review process.
6. Is the proposal an appropriate framework, and should it differ in any manner between Federal and non-Federal applicants? If not, what additional levels or criteria should guide the applicant review process to improve the efficiency of the SAP?

Appeals process:
The proposed policy would provide applicants the ability to file an appeal in the event their application receives a negative disposition. Under this process, the appeal is reviewed by three officials at the statistical agency or unit, including the statistical agency or unit head or delegate, and a consensus decision is required to reverse the original determination.
7. What additional aspects should be considered to ensure that the process is fair, equitable, and transparent?
8. How, if at all, should processes vary for applications that would use data from multiple agencies?

Public reporting:
The Evidence Act (44 U.S.C. 3583(a)(6)) requires public reporting on the status and disposition of each application to promote transparency.
9. What additional information should be considered as part of the proposed public reporting requirements beyond what the proposal suggests?

In addition, OMB welcomes more general comment on the merit of the proposed SAP both in technical terms and as statistical policy, including whether any elements should be modified in support of technical improvement or to improve statistical policy. . . .
 
44 U.S. Code ยง 3583 - Application to access data assets for developing evidence https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/44/3583
ICSP Recommendation (35 pages) https://www.regulations.gov/document/OMB-2022-0001-0001
FR notice inviting comment: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2022/01/14/2022-00620/the-interagency-council-on-statistical-policys-recommendation-for-a-standard-application-process-sap
Submit comments at https://www.regulations.gov/docket/OMB-2022-0001/document

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