Making data-based decisions part of agency culture

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Federal leaders at all levels must continually push the use of data analytics to improve agency decision making and build them into organizational culture, a panel of officials said on Wednesday at an event marking release of a new report.

The report -- the second in a series authored by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and IBM Center for the Business of Government -- documents promising results from seven federal offices that used quantitative measures to restructure and improve programs.

Leaders should “incorporate analytics as a way of doing business, making data-driven decisions transparent and [as] a fundamental approach to day-to-day management,” said the report titled “From Data to Decisions II: Building an Analytics Culture.”

“When an analytics culture is built openly, and the lessons are applied routinely and shared widely, an agency can embed valuable management practices in its DNA, to the mutual benefit of the agency and the public it serves,” the report said,

The follow-up report was conducted because “agencies wanted to know how to get started using analytics” said Judy England-Joseph, a strategic adviser to the partnership, in explaining how her researchers conducted focus groups and interviews with managers, program staff and analytics staff at seven offices within the Treasury, Homeland Security, Interior and Health and Human Services departments.

Most of the officials featured in the report “did not grow up where they are today” but came from varying backgrounds, she added.

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency, disaster relief services were improved by “focusing on quality rather than quantity,” said Carlos Davila, director of the business management division in the recovery directorate of FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery.

“Most people are accustomed to an economic model using inputs and outputs,” said the former historian and anthropologist, whose team instead “saw a need to measure how our efforts affect employees and customers and the effect on the overall community.” The team used measures such as timely delivery of grants and assessments of courteousness. Analytics requires “making a distinction between just reporting,” he added, “and the analysis needed to ask, is our structure right for providing good service?”

Daniel Liddell, federal security director at the Transportation Security Administration in Syracuse, N.Y., described a team effort to produce a more thorough airport passenger inspection system that is now a model being prepared for use at 30 airports. “If you get the people right, everything else follows because people drive the technology and the rules,” said the former Marine, citing a focus on training and education he learned in the military.

“People are nervous at having their individual performance evaluated,” he said. “But the countermeasure for being afraid is trust -- from leadership, the person next to you and the agency. We use the team approach.”

At the Internal Revenue Service, “we are awash in data,” and the baseline for putting the data to use is already good, said Dean Silverman, senior adviser to the IRS commissioner and head of the Office of Compliance Analytics. “So I asked what strategy we could use to take it to the next level. Our model was to take the most difficult or emerging problems that haven’t been cracked and start initiatives to problem-solve.”

Silverman, a former strategic consultant, described how his small office of chiefly outsiders worked with the experts in the agency’s business divisions to combine some programs and cut back on improper tax refunds. The results were “infectious,” he said. “It’s hard to tag a metric on culture change, but you need to have an objective, so you can ask, “Is this sufficient progress? ‘ ”

The idea of analytics is to “create curiosity,” said moderator John Kamensky, senior fellow and associate partner at the IBM Center. “Data doesn’t necessarily answer the questions, but it causes you to ask the questions.”

Other offices whose work the report describes include the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health and its Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

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