Data Policy Coalition Seeks Access to Administrative Data

Administrative data – the data collected by government and non-profits for operational purposes – isn’t the sexiest of subjects. Yet as the value of this information has become  increasingly important in our knowledge-based economy, the need to share it, while balancing the privacy rights of those whose data is collected, is emerging as a hot topic.

Government administrative data contains information on social, economic, and educational outcomes. Re-use of this data by non-profits can address new research questions and drive advocacy efforts for evidence-based policy making. Increased access to government data could be a tool to hold government accountable and challenge positions that undermine human rights.

Non-profits, who are often funded by government to deliver social services and programs, also need access to administrative data. For example, currently, it is difficult for charitable funders and the organizations they support to track the health, economic, and educational outcomes of program participants. However, much of the data needed to track outcomes is already held by government. By accessing this administrative data, organizations could determine whether services had a positive impact on individuals in the medium to long-term.

Recognizing this, through 2018 and 2019, over 30 non-profit, advocacy groups, and funders including Metcalf came together to form the Data Policy Coalition. Having built a shared agenda, the Coalition aims to strengthen the impact of the social sector through effective and ethical use of data in program planning, service integration, evaluation, and system advocacy.

“One big issue we hear about from a lot of members – especially those who provide a wide-range of services – is that they are funded by different government ministries for different programs. However, they are not able to extract data from these databases to run their own analysis and evaluation, nor do they receive any analysis back from government,” says Vanessa Parlette, the program director of Powered by Data, a member organization spearheading the Coalition’s work. “For each funded program, they are required to report data through mandated government databases.”

She concedes that issues surrounding sharing administrative data are both huge and scary. “When we are talking about personally identifiable data, the safety and integrity of the data is of utmost importance. Administrative data has to be deidentified and aggregated. There are models like Data Labs and the federal government’s Social Data Linkage Environment that show it’s possible to do this safely.”

The chief impediment in obtaining this data is structural. Until recently, privacy legislation prohibited governments from sharing information even between ministries. Efforts are now underway to modernize these laws. To this end, the federal government released its high-level data strategy and in the spring of 2019, it followed up by releasing a digital charter.[1]

In Ontario, the provincial government launched Ontario’s Data Strategy last spring, an initiative designed to “unlock the value of government data by building the data skills and capabilities of Ontario government employees and promoting the use of data-driven technologies.”[2] The provincial government has committed to an aggressive timeline. Having held a series of consultations over the summer, the Ontario Data Strategy promised to deliver a final paper by the fall of 2019, which to date remains unpublished.

To each of these consultations, the Coalition brought a previously excluded perspective – that of the social sector – to data policy development and implementation. “We had no idea that the province was going to move forward so quickly,” says Parlette. “It was fortuitous that our Coalition was ready to be at the table with government to represent the interests of the non-profit sector as both users and contributors to government data – as well as partners in service delivery and data protection.

On behalf of the Coalition, Powered by Data has met with senior leaders in the Ontario and federal public service to discuss opportunities and mechanisms for safely and ethically sharing administrative data between governments and non-profits. The Coalition also organized a conference session with Ontario’s Chief Privacy Officer John Roberts to discuss the government’s data integration plans and avenues for deeper collaboration between sectors.

In the meantime, the Ontario government is proceeding with developing Data Integration Units (DIUs) to enable deidentification and sharing of administrative data across and among ministries. The first DIUs will be sited in the Ministries of Finance; Health and Long-term Care; and Children, Community, and Social Services.

The Coalition is also looking at these DIUs as an opportunity for government and non-profits to consider what data need to be collected, analyzed, and shared through government-funded programs. “Our 2020 goal is to initiate a demonstration project to demonstrate the value and benefits of sharing administrative data while preventing harm through misuse and misrepresentation,” says Parlette. “We expect this could be active by the end of this year or early 2021.”

Metcalf is one of several organizations that has committed to funding the Coalition over the next two years.

[1] Statistics Canada has already made some data sets available to researchers through Research Data Centres but with more barriers and limited access for non-profits.

[2] From the 2019 Ontario Budget,