Data is about much more than decision-making

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Why do we care about leveraging data as an asset in government?

This is a recurring question that we in the civic data community face. The most common answer is data is critical for better decision-making. Without data, the answer goes, government leaders make decisions based on a hunch about what they intuitively feel makes the most sense. A government data program is about taking the blindfold off policymakers so they can make decisions based on what the data tell them works.

This answer is not wrong — it’s insufficient. By failing to call out the full extent of the importance of data to government, we undersell the potential of data to fundamentally transform how some of our public institutions address society’s most pressing challenges.

I see at least four value propositions for the use of data in government that are more compelling than the “better decision-making” argument for a public investment in data-driven government.

Feedback loops for a more intelligent organization

Intelligent entities – organisms, organizations, and machines alike – have the unique ability to make sense of their experiences and adapt accordingly. They don’t have to get it right the first time; they can learn from their failures and adjust to continually improve.

This lesson holds in government. If we want our governments to become smarter, they have to be able to collect and analyze data on program impacts and then iterate for better, improved services suited to user needs. Data should therefore not only be used in decision-making before a policy is implemented, it needs to be leveraged after that program is launched in a feedback loop. Intelligent governments don’t just use data in decision-making; they use data to learn.

Optimizing operations

As anyone who has worked for a significant period in government will tell you, the business of government is at least 80 percent operations. To be relevant to how government actually functions, we have to talk about how data optimizes services where the rubber hits the road. Indeed, in our Analytics Accelerator workshop, which is a Socrata Data Academy offering, we talk about six common operational challenges that can be addressed with data. Each of these policy and vertical-agnostic challenges — whether finding the needle in the haystack or triaging a backlog — present opportunities for data to contribute to more effective service delivery.

Take, for example, the work done by the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics in NYC in optimizing building inspections under the Bloomberg administration. That team, which was founded an led by my mentor, Mike Flowers, helped New York City’s buildings department address an operational challenge faced by governments everywhere: a massive backlog and not enough resources to address it.

Mike’s team looked to the data and found that a property owner being delinquent on his or her taxes was a good predictor of whether an inspector would find a building to be too dangerous to be habitable. Instead of working through the backlog on an arbitrary basis, such as date of complaint or location in a particular district, the buildings department began to triage its backlog by going after buildings with the largest tax delinquencies first. The results were eye-popping. The efficiency of inspectors finding the most dangerous buildings increased from 15 percent to 70 percent.

Mike’s work with data for better government was tremendously impactful. However, it had nothing to do with improving decision-making. The elegance of his building inspections backlog use case is that the policy remained the same: promote building safety through enforcement of building safety standards. By resorting a backlog, he leveraged a data-driven insight at the point where it would have the most impact – in the weeds of operations.

A nervous system for a more cross-functional, user-centered organization

Everyone has a story of a frustrating experience with a public service where government’s right hand didn’t talk to its left. Maybe it’s the freshly paved street that is torn up a month later for a completely foreseeable drainage pipe replacement, or a building permit that’s caught in red tape purgatory between two regulatory agencies. Or more seriously, the opioid addiction victim who falls between the cracks of the criminal justice and health care systems.

Unfortunately, these types of stories tend to be the rule, not the exception, and they are a major driver of public mistrust of government. For government to address the root cause of these frustrating symptoms of dysfunction, it has to do far more than encourage its agencies to talk to each other. For an organization at government’s scale to work cohesively to address cross-departmental challenges  — and almost all serious public policy challenges are inherently cross-departmental — they must all share a common nervous system to coordinate in real time. A robust enterprise data infrastructure that allows for secure sharing of data is critical to this endeavor.

Renewing the social contract

Make no mistake — trust in government is at alarmingly low levels. Fewer than one in five Americans trust their government to do what is right, according to a 2017 longitudinal study by Pew Charitable Trusts.

Society’s ability to address its enormous challenges relies in no small part on our public institutions’ legitimacy to make choices that advance the common good over private interests. Without this trust, the status quo prevails and innovative solutions to vexing problems — such as poverty, inequality, and security — become increasingly rare.

While it would be naive to suggest data can solve all of our problems with trust in government, data undoubtedly has an important role to play in renewing the social contract. Administrative data is the record of what a government does with public dollars. By ensuring the quality, completeness, and integrity of this data, we allow government to be subject to the scrutiny of oversight and held accountable for its performance. This scrutiny is critical to any effort to repair public trust.

Don’t get me wrong: data has an enormously valuable role to play in promoting better decision-making in government. But we sell ourselves short if we miss data’s more fundamental, profound contributions in reshaping our governments so that they can fulfill their foundational promise of a more healthy, vibrant and prosperous society.

About the author

Oliver Wise is the director of the Socrata Data Academy. In this role, he helps governments develop the skills, leadership strategies, and execution tactics necessary to harness of the potential of data to transform public services. Before joining Tyler Technologies Inc., Socrata’s parent company, Oliver was the founding director of the City of New Orleans Office of Performance and Accountability, the city’s first data analytics team. He holds an MPA from NYU Wagner, a BA from Tufts, and lives in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans with his awesome family: Ryan, Annie, Olive, and Eamonn.

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