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Using open data to 'tech your way out' of the Silver Tsunami

Commentary: A generation of workers is retiring in record numbers, but the CEO of Socrata says technology can transform the obstacle into an opportunity.

Kevin Merritt
Bio
Kevin Merritt President & CEO, Socrata

Kevin Merritt is the founder and CEO of Socrata, one of the most prolific and well-established companies in the open data industry.

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(Getty Images)

With older government workers retiring or getting ready to retire at a rate not seen since the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, organizations need to prepare for a retiring workforce. According to a 2014 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, nearly 600,000 federal civilian employees — around 31 percent — are expected to be eligible for retirement by the end of this summer. State and local government are forecasting similar figures.

Additionally, new talent is not flocking to fill open government positions. The 2008 recession came along just as millennials entered the workforce, with its hiring freezes, furloughs, and reduced retirement benefits. The Office of Personnel Management found that millennials make up just 17 percent of the federal workforce, threatening a large gap in unfilled roles and short-staffed programs once employees retire.

So, how can a government organization approach this challenge? One East Coast official suggests technology as a solution.

“No one is going to hire their way out of the Silver Tsunami. We’re going to have to tech our way out of it,” Massachusetts Comptroller Tom Shack said at the most recent National Association of State Chief Information Officers conference.

When faced with the knowledge that 45 percent of the commonwealth’s employees would be at or near retirement age within five years, Shack decided Massachusetts needed to focus on creating new processes and systems that require less human interaction.

With this goal in mind, Shack launched CTHRU, a cloud-based, open records platform that eliminates hundreds — potentially thousands — of hours of work by his staff to access and share data. Rather than keep the state’s financial information locked in PDFs, individual computers, or in the customized, cumbersome, legacy finance systems, CTHRU shows payroll, budget, and spending data — down to check-level detail — to anyone on a mobile device. The data is updated automatically by the state's financial system and is available to export, visualize, embed, or query via application programming interfaces (APIs), allowing developers to feed it to web or mobile applications.

CTHRU certainly deserves credit for boosting government transparency with Massachusetts residents, but, in the face of the Silver Tsunami, it is efficiency that matters. Internal staff now use the system to track financials and share information. Shack understands the urgency of unearthing as much data as possible before employees with valuable institutional knowledge of programs retire from state service.

Unlocking 'tribal knowledge'

Shack’s decision to focus on data sharing is a wise one. Governments produce vast amounts of data. Of all the ways technology can reduce staff workloads, making data standardized and accessible in the cloud is one of the most impactful. Unlocking "tribal knowledge" trapped in employees’ minds and their computers opens up nearly endless avenues for process improvement.

Governments collect hundreds of millions of rows of data a day, from 311 requests to crime statistics. And millennials may not want to spend their days collecting and sorting the data as it comes in. But they might be very interested in using data to improve program outcomes and deliver frictionless government services. Where should ambulances be placed to best respond to drug overdoses in certain neighborhoods? Who are the biggest waste producers in local industries? By automating the movement of data, governments can give the up and coming workforce the empowerment of analyzing and learning from the data, not just the job of collecting and storing it.

There are many more government leaders already working to make data automation and accessibility a priority.

The City of Jackson, Mississippi, cut hiring time by 40 percent after they made data on their recruitment process available to all staff. Public servants dug in and realized they could save time by reorganizing existing staff rather than hiring new employees.

The State of Utah’s Department of Transportation (UDOT) moved its annual strategic report from a PDF to an online portal. According to the UDOT team, preparing the PDF report had taken staffers months, and once the PDF was distributed in print, the information was out of date. The portal, in contrast, took just weeks to launch, and the data is updated weekly.

Douglas County, Kansas, published its budget to the web and has found that elected officials use it to explore issues whenever they like, rather than requesting and waiting for reports from Douglas County staffers.

An opportunity, not an obstacle

Improving the internal processes with technology helps government improve and share their community outcomes which attracts new talent to public service, ranging from millennials to those returning to the workforce to those experiencing their second stage of their career. The Silver Tsunami shouldn't be viewed as an obstacle, but rather an opportunity that offers savvy governments a chance to closely reexamine existing workflows in order to locate pain points, especially with data access and use.

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States, Kansas, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Utah, Tech News, Data & Analytics, Big Data, Business Intelligence, Digital Services, Commentary, Private Sector, open data, Socrata

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