While there are significant benefits to integrated data systems, combining administrative data from multiple sources requires complying with requirements from a variety of federal, state, and local laws.

In the fourth blog in our series about the work of the Data Integration Support Center (DISC) at WestEd, experts Sean Cottrell and Laia Tiderman discuss how lawyers and other legal professionals play a pivotal role in the success of integrated data systems.

Integrated data systems link data across sectors and over time to inform policy, allocate resources, and better serve individuals.

DISC at WestEd provides legal supports to help public agencies’ legal counsel as they navigate compliance with various federal, state, and local laws that govern data use and impact integrated data systems.

Learn more about DISC’s External Legal Supports—including an ongoing workshop series co-hosted by Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy that is dedicated to training legal professionals to better understand and support data integration.

What is a lawyer’s role in supporting public agencies’ data integration efforts?

Tiderman: In an era where data is a powerful currency, legal professionals must provide advice and counsel to public agencies’ repurposing administrative data thoughtfully and routinely. Not only do lawyers need to understand how administrative data evolves and is managed throughout its lifespan, but they must also consider the appropriate use of data to support community needs, privacy considerations, regulatory compliance, and ethical responsibilities.

Cottrell: A lawyer’s role in supporting public agencies’ data integration efforts involves ensuring compliance with relevant laws and regulations, protecting sensitive information, drafting agreements for data sharing, and resolving legal issues that may arise during the integration process. They also help establish policies and procedures for data management and assist in addressing any legal challenges related to privacy, security, or intellectual property rights. Ultimately, their aim is to facilitate smooth and legally sound data integration processes for public agencies.

Describe the types of barriers or mistakes you often see in engaging lawyers for data integration efforts. What are some best practices for bringing lawyers and other legal professionals into data integration efforts? 

Cottrell: When engaging lawyers for data integration efforts, especially in the context of Integrated Data Systems (IDS), public agencies may encounter various barriers or make mistakes that can hinder the effectiveness of the legal support.
Some common issues include the following:

  • Late engagement: Lawyers are often brought in too late in the process, after key decisions have been made, which can lead to compliance issues that could have been addressed proactively.
  • Communication gaps: There can be a lack of clear communication between legal professionals and data practitioners, leading to misunderstandings about technical capabilities and legal requirements.
  • Overemphasis on barriers: Lawyers are sometimes seen as gatekeepers rather than enablers, focusing more on potential legal barriers rather than finding solutions to facilitate data integration within legal constraints.
  • Insufficient training: Legal professionals may not have specialized knowledge in the specific legal aspects of data integration, privacy, and security, which can lead to gaps in ensuring compliance.
  • Resource constraints: Public agencies might face budgetary constraints that limit their access to legal expertise, particularly in specialized areas like data privacy laws.
  • Static legal advice: The legal landscape for IDS is dynamic, and advice that does not account for ongoing changes in laws and regulations can quickly become outdated.

What are some best practices public agencies can employ to effectively integrate lawyers and other legal professionals into data integration efforts?

Public agencies should consider the following best practices:

  • Early involvement: Involve legal counsel early in the planning stages of data integration projects to identify potential legal issues and ensure compliance from the outset.
  • Ongoing collaboration: Establish a collaborative environment where legal professionals work closely with data practitioners, project managers, and IT staff throughout the project lifecycle.
  • Education and training: Provide ongoing education and training for lawyers on the technological aspects of data integration, and similarly, educate data practitioners on relevant legal and regulatory considerations.
  • Clear communication: Develop clear channels of communication and common language to facilitate mutual understanding between legal and data teams.
  • Proactive compliance: Encourage a proactive approach to compliance, where lawyers help design data systems and processes that are compliant by default, rather than retrofitting compliance measures.
  • Flexibility and innovation: Foster a culture where legal professionals are encouraged to think innovatively and flexibly to find legal pathways for data sharing that also meet privacy and security standards.
  • Regular updates: Given the evolving nature of the legal landscape, ensure that legal advice is regularly updated and that policies and practices reflect the most current laws and regulations.
  • Resource allocation: Advocate for adequate resources to support legal expertise within public agencies, recognizing the critical role of legal counsel in data integration efforts.
  • Balanced perspective: Emphasize the importance of balancing risk management with the potential benefits of data integration, encouraging legal professionals to provide balanced advice that considers both aspects.
  • Comprehensive legal framework: Acknowledge the multilayered legal landscape of IDS, which includes federal, state, and local laws. Lawyers should have a comprehensive understanding of this framework to navigate the specificities of each jurisdiction and the interplay between different levels of law.
  • Ethical and equity lens: Ensure that lawyers apply an ethical and equity lens to the data integration efforts, considering the broader implications for all stakeholders, especially vulnerable populations.
  • Documentation: Maintain thorough documentation of legal analyses, decisions, and agreements to provide a clear audit trail and reference for future questions or audits.

By integrating these best practices, public agencies can better leverage legal expertise to navigate the complex regulatory environment of IDS, ensuring compliance and facilitating successful data integration initiatives that serve the public good.

What services does DISC offer to support public agencies navigating legal barriers to integrated data systems?

Cottrell: At DISC we leverage our legal expertise, data management skills, and strategic planning to support public agencies in navigating legal barriers to IDS. Some of the services that we offer to meet this need include the following:

  • Legal Consultation and Compliance Review
    • Provide legal insight on data sharing, privacy laws, and compliance with federal regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and General Data Protection Regulation.
    • Assist in interpreting state laws that impact data sharing and integration.
    • Develop legal frameworks for interagency data sharing agreements.
  • Data Governance Strategy
    • Help establish clear data governance policies and procedures to ensure data integrity, privacy, and security.
    • Advise on the creation of data governance boards or committees.
  • Enhanced Security Assessments
    • Conduct assessments to identify and mitigate privacy and security risks associated with data integration.
    • Recommend best practices for data minimization and anonymization.
  • Training and Capacity Building
    • Provide training for agency staff on legal requirements, ethical data use, and best practices for data management.
    • Develop resources and toolkits to aid in understanding legal constraints and opportunities.
  • Technical Assistance
    • Offer guidance on selecting and implementing technology solutions that comply with legal requirements.
    • Support the development of interoperable systems that facilitate secure data sharing.
  • Policy Advocacy
    • Advocate for legislative or regulatory changes that support data integration while protecting individual rights.
    • Assist public agencies in engaging with policymakers and stakeholders.
  • Monitoring and Evaluation
    • Design systems to monitor compliance with legal requirements and evaluate the effectiveness of data sharing initiatives.
  • Facilitation of Partnerships
    • Help build collaborations between public agencies, private sector partners, and nonprofits to enhance data sharing capabilities.

What benefits will public agencies receive from these services?

  • Compliance assurance: Reduced risk of legal challenges and penalties by ensuring data-sharing practices comply with all relevant laws and regulations.
  • Improved decision-making: Access to integrated data can inform policy decisions, leading to more effective and efficient public services.
  • Enhanced service delivery: Integrated data systems can provide a more holistic view of individuals and communities, enabling tailored and coordinated services.
  • Cost savings: Avoidance of duplicative data collection and processing efforts, reducing administrative costs.
  • Increased transparency: Clear data-sharing practices can increase public trust in how agencies manage and use data.
  • Better data quality: Integrated systems can improve the accuracy and completeness of data, leading to more reliable analyses.
  • Innovation: Facilitating data sharing can lead to innovative approaches to problem-solving and the development of new services.
  • Interagency collaboration: Breaking down data silos can improve communication and collaboration between different government entities.

Can you share an example of how you’ve partnered with a public agency to provide legal supports and, in turn, how it helped their IDS efforts?

An established IDS reached out to us to review their existing Data Sharing Agreement (DSA) that governed the exchange of data from partners to IDS. Our subject matter experts identified areas of clarification and further alignment to FERPA. In further discussions, we learned one community college resisted signing the DSA due to concerns around the legality of sharing education records as required by FERPA.

Working with IDS, we facilitated a conversation between the community college partner and IDS to talk through the recommended changes to the DSA and to provide expertise on FERPA. Through that conversation, we learned the community college partner’s reluctance wasn’t because of a concern with the legality of the data sharing. Instead, the partner had concerns about the quality of their own data and what it might reveal about the community college to the public. Our team was able to clarify any remaining legal issues and allowed IDS to work with the partner on their concerns around data quality.

We are proud to have played a role in bringing these two organizations together to help them achieve their goals and better serve their communities.

Learn more about the WestEd Data Integration Support Center.

Read other posts in this Q&A Series

Leading Voices Podcast

Leading Voices Episode 9 with Baron Rodriguez and Sean CotrellIn this episode, host Danny Torres talks with Baron Rodriguez, Executive Director for WestEd’s Data Integration Support Center (DISC), and Sean Cottrell, Director of Operations of DISC, about the Center’s comprehensive services and why integrating data from across sectors—including education, workforce, social services, and criminal justice—can help state leaders and policymakers address the needs of the whole child, the whole person, and the whole community.

Access DISC’s resources library.

Sean Cottrell, Director of Operations for DISC, provides strategic oversight and administrative functions. Along with serving as a senior subject matter expert on privacy law and governance, Cottrell also serves as partnership director by seeking opportunities to align and support similar efforts to advance the development of integrated data systems.

Laia Tiderman, DISC Associate Director, connects DISC’s subject matter experts and resources with public agencies, identifying gaps and developing solutions with states to support the development of integrated data systems. She leads the development of DISC tools and resources to support public agencies in their integrated data system modernization.