Don’t Introduce Inefficiencies for the Sake of Aesthetics

Policy and process are essential for opening up compliance, enforcement data

Aneesh Chopra and Cass Sunstein posed three questions last month intended to generate ideas on how to more effectively manage public resources and increase corporate accountability. One question asked for existing tools that can help government create a platform to make compliance and enforcement data available and searchable online, and to generate and share this information across the Government – as outlined in the Memorandum on Regulatory Compliance in January 2011.

The answer, however, doesn’t lie solely in technology – policy and process are also critical in making sure the technology – regardless of what tool is selected – works as intended.

Information Sharing Requires Fixed and Shared Identification

Early in my career I was a requirements management subject matter expert providing both strategic and repository management support to large defense proposals and multi-year projects. With my youthful exuberance I had no problem scolding senior systems engineers who wanted to renumber requirements so they were sequential rather than preserving numbers from the previous release. This identifier was the easiest way to track changes from one release to the next: if the number was missing, that requirement was removed; if the number moved somewhere else, it simply was grouped into a different section. If I wasn’t so stubborn many programs would have introduced inefficiencies for the sake of aesthetics.

When I moved into the enterprise architecture world, I was responsible for connecting the system data to the investment data. Not making the decision, simply connecting data points between two distinct systems of record. I was dismayed when I learned that the only reportable “identifier” for the investment was a) not unique and b) allowed to change from year to year. Instead of using a true identifier to simply update my previous import, I needed to use every data evaluation trick I had learned in order to accurately align “my” identifier to the records from the other system.

Now imagine that you don’t have years of experience in data manipulation and analysis. How quickly would you abandon the task? And at what point does the cost of this reuse effort exceed the cost of simply duplicating the data collection or accepting the risk of making a decision without the information? For government to become more data efficient for both their own benefit and to support data transparency in regulatory compliance and enforcement there are several key strategies to be employed.

Adopt a central management of common data

A typical piece of common data involved in monitoring regulatory compliance is the entity being regulated. Rather than have each government system develop and maintain its own naming conventions and identifiers, a single method of identifying and naming common data would be managed, distributed, and updatable as new items emerge.

One group doing this now is Open Corporates, assembling data about corporations around the world. Also investigating this problem is the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), publishing a set of Requirements for a Global Legal Entity Identifier (LEI) Solution in May 2011.

Why is this common identification important? So anyone assembling a full picture of compliance by a corporation can do so not just easily, but with a level of confidence in the resulting analysis. For instance: the Federal Railroad Administration identifies safety or other policy violators according to their own numbering system. If someone was interested in evaluating the violator for problems in other enforcement areas, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the process would require a manual resolution of mapping corporate entities between the two datasets. Repeat for any other organization tracking compliance of corporate entities. This lack of common identifier could lead to not identifying a corporate culture that neglects safety, only uncovered when a tragedy strikes.

Engage the public and advocacy groups to assist in developing a publishing solution

Going back to the question that prompted this response: what existing tools can best help the government to create a platform to make compliance and enforcement data available online in a searchable form? I’m sure there are lots of interesting possibilities across government right now, but frankly, tools are not the solution in and of themselves. One could use a posted spreadsheet and achieve the objectives of publishing data in a searchable form. What is truly key is having consistency in the data collection and reporting. When the process is working, the tools can be evaluated and configured to add efficiency the process that already delivers the necessary results.

Cooperatively develop the schema for responding to regulatory compliance requirements

Because there may be cross-agency engagement to enforce regulatory compliance, uniformly tracking the information results in greater efficiencies. This does not necessarily result in a new information system that is shared, but rather could be the adoption of changes to existing systems that accommodate the common schema and make information exchanges simpler.

Right now, Beth Noveck and Jim Hendler are working on ORGPedia, seeking “to plan the legal, policy and technology framework for a data exchange that will facilitate comparison of data across regulatory schemes and public reuse and annotation of that data.” (More here)

Why is this Important?

Examples of safety and other compliance problems are usually only fully identified when the impact is devistating, be it a train collision, mining accident, or financial unraveling of pension funds. Our Government needs to be equipped with as many tools as necessary to be able to better see the big picture of a corporation in order to intervene before citizens are victims of preventable incidents.