Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Summary and Recommendations

06/01/2002

Matching and linking administrative data can be a great boon to researchers and evaluators trying to understand the impacts of welfare reform, but researchers sometimes find that they cannot access administrative data because of concerns about individual privacy, the ambiguity of statutory authority, and agency fears about public scrutiny.

Concerns about individual privacy and the desire to protect confidential data have grown dramatically in the past decade. Data matching often raises the Orwellian threat of a big brother government that knows all about its citizens' lives. The result has been a welter of laws that have often reacted to the worst possibilities that can be imagined rather than to realistic threats. Researchers, we have argued, do not pose the worst threats to data confidentiality, but they have had to cope with laws that assume data users will try to identify individuals and use sensitive information in inappropriate ways. In fact, researchers have only a passing interest in individual identifiers and microlevel data. They want to be able to do analysis that employs the full power of individual level data and to link data using identifiers to create even more powerful data sets. But as researchers they have no interest in information about individuals.(19) At worst, researchers pose only a moderate risk of disclosure.

Nevertheless, agencies with data must deal with an ambiguous legal environment that makes it hard to know whether and under what circumstances information can be shared with another agency or with researchers. Many agencies are hesitant to share information because of the lack of clear-cut statutory authority about who can access and use data. Others prefer the current situation, viewing ambiguous laws as providing greater flexibility and latitude. The downside of this ambiguity is that much is left to the individual judgments of agency managers who must deal with fears of legislative and public scrutiny. Although providing greater access to information potentially increases public knowledge and understanding about the agency, this information may cause others to second-guess the agency. The result is a skeptical and suspicious posture toward researchers' requests for data.

Overcoming these obstacles requires experience, leadership, the development of trust, and the availability of resources.(20)

Most data requesters and potential data providers are just beginning to gain experience with the rules governing research uses of administrative data. Most requesters are unfamiliar with the relevant laws and with agencies' concerns about confidentiality. Many agencies with administrative data have not had much experience with researchers, and they lack the relatively long time horizon required to wait for research to pay off. This is especially true of those parts of the agency that control administrative data. As a result, data requestors are impatient with procedures and find it hard to proceed. Agencies, faced with the unknown, delay providing data because they prefer to attend to their day-to-day problems. Leadership is essential for overcoming these problems.

Trust is also important. Trust may be hard to establish because of fears about how the data will be used and worries about whether the data will be protected against inappropriate disclosure. The "providing" agency must trust that the "receiver" will both protect confidentiality and not use the information in a way that compromises the basis on which the providing agency collected the information. The data provider also must believe it will receive some payoff for it from providing the data.

Even with experience, leadership, and trust, enough resources may not be available to overcome the many obstacles to providing data. Requesters may run out of steam as they encounter complicated requirements and seemingly endless meetings and negotiations. Providers may balk at the requester's requests for documentation and technical assistance in using the data. Adequate resources, also are essential for successful projects. There must be staff members who can help prepare data requests and the data themselves. There must be resources to fund the facilities (such as data archives or research data centers) that facilitate data access.

We found many instances where administrative data were used successfully, but the legal, technical, and institutional situation is parlous. Laws and regulations continue to be enacted with virtually no consideration of the needs of researchers. Technical advances offer some hope of making data available while protecting confidentiality, but technical advances such as the Internet and powerful computers also threaten data security. Institutional arrangements are precarious, often perched on nothing more than the leadership and trust developed by a few individuals.

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