Making Data Real: Lessons From Federal Leaders

How analytics led to better performance at three agencies.

At an event yesterday, the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service added to a growing body of knowledge about how government leaders can leverage the power of analytics and data to make better decisions. This event was the culmination of a series of interviews with pioneers in analytics at a wide range of federal agencies.

In a panel discussion led by the Partnership’s Judy England-Joseph, three government leaders detailed the lessons learned from their experience that can guide other agencies in the sound use of analytics to make decisions.

At the Social Security Administration, Gerald Ray runs the disability appeals process. He observed that the disability review process required significant knowledge of regulatory compliance as well as the specifics of each individual case.  SSA used analytics to pinpoint training improvements needed to make the review process more effective in terms of faster and more accurate results for the individuals seeking a review.  The agency was able to accelerate training time frames, provide the right information to review staff, and achieve measurable improvements in service.

At the Food and Drug Administration, Malcolm Bertoni helps lead FDA reviews of drug applications that are critically important for getting valuable medical services to market while ensuring the safety and effectiveness of those drugs. FDA used analytics to improve the efficiency and accuracy of their reviews, and Malcolm offered several lessons learned:

  • Know your objective in terms of program improvement: What is the compelling business need? This will help leaders address compliance responsibly, rather than being hamstrung by requirements.
  • Address how the leaders of the analytics program can catalyze the entire team to focus on implementation. Find the champions and allow them to help others.
  • Think of pilots, build on success and be clear about results so that the program and the people affected know the implications of analytics-driven outcomes.

At the Transportation Security Administration, Dan Liddell is a senior adviser for performance. He focused on creating an analytics program to help achieve TSA’s mission of protecting the traveling public. The agency leveraged data to understand the performance needs of all the government partners who work alongside TSA staff in an airport. TSA also focused on training needs to ensure that agencies are equipped to deliver strong performance. This led to the identification of hundreds of unique skills to assess and understand the efficacy of different training approaches in boosting productivity. This enabled TSA to test the results, and more importantly, to build a stronger team-oriented approach to achieving results.

In a Q&A after the discussion, the audience (mostly government innovators themselves) asked some hard questions about the road forged by these three innovators that are also important for other agencies to address. They included the following challenges:

  • The importance of working with unions early.
  • Understanding what is most important to measure, given limited resources.
  • Adapting the analytics program to when changes occur in agency leadership.
  • Finding key change agents across the organization who can make a collaborative initiative successful.
  • Taking care to ensure data are showing actual outcomes, not ones that are tailored to support a pre-existing position.
  • Addressing what changes in policy are indicated by analytics, in addition to process improvements.

In addition to the knowledge shared by these three federal leaders, on our website, the IBM Center features a series of podcast interviews with other executives on how they are using data and analytics to carry out a wide range of missions, such as preventing and countering tax fraud, improving training, responding to emergencies, protecting investors and keeping food safe. The podcasts provide insights into the essential ingredients for a successful analytics program, and offer advice from leaders whose agencies are benefiting from analyzing data. Instrumental to the podcast success was IBM's Brian Murrow, an expert on strategy and analytics, along with the Partnership team led by Lara Shane.

Federal leaders profiled in the podcasts (a segment of their interviews are included below) lead complex programs in some of the agencies that have greatest impact on citizens and benefit from leveraging data as a strategic asset in program operations. These leaders include:

The IBM Center hopes that the results of this ongoing collaboration with the Partnership will help agencies continue to enhance their ability to leverage analytics in a way that improves mission results.

Dan Chenok is executive director at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

(Image via archerix/