For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. Recently, we spoke with Poppy MacDonald (she/her), the president of USAFacts, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic initiative that provides data about the U.S. government and population. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.
Tell us a bit about how you found your way into the civic tech and government space. Why did you want to focus on data?
A driving theme in my career has been empowering the American public with information. This started with one of my first roles working on Capitol Hill, translating policy for constituents so they could understand why it matters to them. It continued at Gallup, where we tracked the opinions of individuals in 190 countries through The World Poll and converted their responses into valuable data. But it was my work in media where I truly saw the power of providing the American public with facts and information, and how important it was for people to have open, available information about governmental politics and policies.
When I learned that USAFacts was looking for someone to lead its efforts to deliver trusted facts to Americans, it felt like an important moment, not just for me, but for the millions of people who needed a trusted source to access public information. I knew from my experience in government and media how difficult it is to access this information. Seeing Washington, D.C.’s frenetic pace firsthand, I knew even dedicated civil servants and reporters don’t have days to track down government data, let alone everyday people simply looking for reliable facts in today’s era of misinformation campaigns. So a chance to work for a not-for-profit with the mission to make government data open and accessible was too important to pass up. What we’re doing with data can help shape opinions and the future of education, healthcare, climate change, immigration reform, equality, and—most importantly—democracy.
Why is having good data on government—in an easily accessible and understandable format—so critical to civic engagement?
USAFacts was started from a belief that information about how our federal, state, and local governments spend money should be accessible by both elected officials and the public. At USAFacts, we believe these facts deserve to be heard. Instead, far too often, they are quieted by partisanship or even simply lack of access. As a result, decisions at every level and in every corner of our country are being made based on rhetoric and assumptions rather than data and evidence. As shareholders in our democracy, the American public has a right to expect more than that.
In a perfect world, Americans would have easy and open access to a trusted source of facts. This would allow healthy debate that begins with agreement on the facts while the effectiveness of policies can be measured with data. People may disagree about the right way to move our country forward, but our debates on how this should happen would begin with an agreed upon foundation of indisputable facts.
Even dedicated civil servants and reporters don’t have days to track down government data, let alone everyday people simply looking for reliable facts in today’s era of misinformation campaigns.
You have a background in journalism—how does that show up in your work now? How do we tell compelling stories about data?
I joined USAFacts after almost a decade in media, most recently at POLITICO and Atlantic Media. At the time, USAFacts offered three ways for people to engage with millions of data points from hundreds of government sources: a search bar, a 100-page annual report with data visualizations, and a 200-page 10-K detailing of our country’s spending and outcomes, similar to what the government requires corporations to file annually. Even as someone with a history of dissecting this information, I was overwhelmed trying to find the metrics most important to me.
We needed to make the information more accessible to people who might not know what they were seeking—or even that this government data exists. So we changed our way of thinking, focusing on what is happening in our country and the data that could both provide context and make the issues easier to understand. Today, we have teams dedicated to bringing in new, relevant data and presenting it in plain language with helpful visualizations. Our goal is to help Americans understand trends in US spending, revenue, climate change, education, population and demographics, policy outcomes, and more. We do all of this to give people the tools to ground public debates in facts—to be a starter for productive conversations that can change our communities, our country, and our world for the better.
What about the work you’re doing now gives you hope for change? What do you want that change to look like?
USAFacts has been warmly welcomed by members of Congress from both parties, by both the Trump and Biden administrations and by federal civil servants. There is broad agreement that government data is the people’s data and it should be publicly accessible. We have had civil servants encourage us to file a Freedom of Information Act to ensure agencies place a priority on making government data available, and, last fall, I was asked to testify in person before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
There has also been progress in recent years. For example, the enactment of the strongly bipartisan OPEN Government Data Act in 2019, originally introduced by Rep. Derek Kilmer, was a key step forward in making some data from the federal government accessible for Americans’ personal and commercial use. It created an initial pathway for agencies to organize and distribute data to other agencies and the general public in ways that are easy to access and understand. This has been a good start, but much more needs to be done.
In 2019, Congress appropriated $8.9 billion dollars for the collection of government statistics. But while we now have tremendous stores of data, it is not compiled to be readily accessed or understood. It is the American people’s data, and they—and those they elect to represent them—should have timely and easy access to it. The opportunities for improvement are vast, and the solutions are within our reach. That’s what we’re hoping to achieve at USAFacts.
The opportunities for improvement are vast, and the solutions are within our reach.
Where does the field of civic tech and government have room to grow?
USAFacts is a free resource for Americans to access government data. To give you a sense of the complexity, there are over 90,000 state and local government bodies in the United States. Few have standardized means of reporting information to agencies, Congress, and the general public. Agency data is often siloed in the process of collection, analysis, and presentation, resulting in confusion and duplication of data collection. Administrative and statistical data is often collected and analyzed for the sole purpose of implementing programs for one agency rather than use across agencies.
To give a recent example, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal and state leaders lacked standardized data to inform crucial decision-making. USAFacts combed through state and county reports, all of which used different reporting methods, to create a standardized view of daily virus cases and deaths. As a result, USAFacts became a go-to source for comprehensible real-time COVID-19 data for many levels of government, as well as publicly-traded companies, not-for-profits, and millions of people in the general public. We filled a need in the public awareness effort, but COVID-19 will not be the last challenge this country faces where data can play a valuable role.
To support the information needs of a modernized government, USAFacts advocates for more open, timely, and detailed data. We continue to promote recommendations that individual government agencies can implement to mitigate access issues, including:
- Ensure that data is timely, complete, and accurate;
- Create reliable and certain ways to access and understand data;
- Ensure datasets are contextual and relevant;
- Establish formal cross-agency and cross-government collaboration and standards; and,
- Make the data and collection processes more transparent.
Lastly, I see an opportunity in expanding chances for young people to pursue civic tech careers to modernize government and improve public access to information. An aging government workforce means there will be an increasing number of roles to fill. The latest US Office of Personnel Management data found that 14% of current federal workers are over 60, compared to 20 years ago when that figure was 7%. We hope our work inspires incoming early career civil servants to reimagine data-driven policy-making.