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Making Decisions in a Time of Transition

How new leaders can harness data to make the right choices.

In 2017, the next administration will face many significant and simultaneous decisions on an array of issues, and mountains of data to inform these choices.

How can new leaders quickly gain situational awareness? How can they harness ongoing processes like budget formulation and performance reporting as inputs for decision-making?How can they use and integrate expertise such as risk management and strategic foresight into actionable information? Are there decision-making frameworks and models that leaders can adapt to produce faster decisions based on evidence? 

These were among the questions that an expert group discussed at a November roundtable, co-hosted by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service. The session focused on how a new administration can implement decision frameworks to help them turn campaign promises into policy and included actionable recommendations for transition teams and future agency leaders.

The roundtable convened an exceptional group of current and former senior officials from administrations of both parties, as well as experts from academia and the private and nonprofit sectors for a robust discussion. The meeting was the fourth of six planned roundtables in our Management Roadmap series, part of a multipronged Ready to Govern (#Ready2Govern) initiative, through which the Partnership seeks to improve the transfer of power and knowledge between administrations.

While the discussion centered on decision-making, it frequently touched upon topics that have arisen in previous roundtables, such as the importance of strong leadership and clear goals (see discussion of the first roundtable, second roundtable, and third roundtable Part I and Part II). Our recently released whitepaper on Executive Talent also explores challenges of leadership in a new administration.

The IBM Center is pleased to collaborate with the Partnership to help the next administration get off to a strong start and sustain management excellence. We are grateful for the many distinguished leaders who contributed their time and insights to the roundtable and to former Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Scott Gould for his expert facilitation of the session.

Why Leaders Should Focus on Decision-Making

Upon taking office, leaders must quickly decide what to focus on, what information they need and how to get it, and what processes to use for making decisions. This sounds simple and straightforward, but in reality can be extraordinarily complex in the federal environment, and can swamp even experienced leaders.

By being thoughtful and intentional about how to approach the multiple facets of decision-making, leaders can make smart and timely choices that are based on data and evidence. In doing so, they can accelerate the achievement of the president’s priorities, reduce risk and increase the capacity of agencies to deliver on mission objectives.

The roundtable focused on:

  • Governmentwide decision frameworks and processes
  • Best practices for individual agency leaders
  • How a new administration can adapt and implement decision frameworks that support the ability of leaders to focus on the right issues and make the right choices
  • Identify decision-making tools, processes, best practices, and analytic capabilities

Roundtable participants identified a variety of challenges facing leaders when it comes to making smart decisions.

Sifting Through Information

  • Information overload. The vast quantity of information can overwhelm. Sifting through the noise and staying focused on priorities is essential to effective decision-making.
  • Information obfuscation. As one participant noted, “the best way to say nothing is to keep talking, and the best way to keep someone out of your business is by giving them too much information.”
  • Three-dimensional chess. Recognize that decision-making takes place in a broader context where evidence is important, but so is policy and politics. Leaders need to look at decisions through all three dimensions.


  • Agencies are often faced with a bewildering array of decisions and need to focus on priorities and identify what decisions can be made at different levels of the organization.
  • Evaluation is not precision. There is no such thing as perfect information. The challenge is to use the information available and then identify information gaps that the organization can focus on in the future.
  • Balanced perspectives about data. There needs to be a balance between dispassionate analysis of data and having analysis (and people) who are close enough to understand the data in the context of an agency’s mission and real-world effects.
  • Best alternative to negotiated agreement (BATNA). The first choice outcome isn’t always possible so it is useful to think of the BATNA when considering the range of choices.
  • Just do it. Don’t wait for precision and perfect information before integrating data and evidence into decision-making. Use an iterative approach to data and remember, data and evidence are the means to better decisions – not the end in itself.


  • The Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list is full of issues that cut across organizational boundaries. Effective collaboration, within and between agencies, requires leadership engagement and can be a powerful tool drive better decisions and deliver faster results (see the summaries – Part I and Part II – from an earlier roundtable on enterprise government).
  • Stakeholders and process. It is a challenge to figure out how best to bring together decision-makers and the plethora of different voices – at the right points in a decision process to distill information and make good choices.
  • Trust. The most effective organizations are those with high trust. Trust is a cultural value more than a policy.
  • People first. Processes are a way of engaging people in decision-making. To effect outcomes and have meaningful changes in a process, you need to change the hearts and minds of people.
  • Respect information-sharing. Understand that no data set is perfect and that getting better data is a continuous process that never ends. People and organizations need to be encouraged to share information and not be punished when errors arise in data sets.
  • Defining the enterprise. One of the challenges noted by participants was defining what portion of the enterprise should be optimized.  Often the enterprise is defined by where a person sits. However, optimizing decisions at lower levels can sometimes sub-optimize the whole organization.
  • Aligning the enterprise. Having clarity around organizational goals and objectives is critical to helping people within the organization understand what they should be doing. It can also unleash potential by giving objectives to strive for and allowing for more autonomous action in support of goals.


  • Leaders set the tone. Messages from senior leaders can be quickly absorbed by an organization. If a leader signals early-on that negative information is met with recriminations and punishment, then you can be certain that information will be tucked out of sight. Conversely, if a leader, through words and actions, signals a genuine desire to use data and information and create a culture of trust, people will begin to respond accordingly.
  • Making it safe to share bad news. “You can’t manage a secret,” was the paraphrase from a participant who emphasized the importance of a culture of trust and open information in revealing information – even bad news – in a timely manner so that little problems don’t become big problems.
  • Top-down and bottom-up. It is important for leaders, starting in the White House, signal that evidence should be part of the conversation on decisions – and it is also important that employees at the outer edges of an organization be given the tools, training and flexibility to use evidence and data to improve operations – in short, to innovate.

In our next blog, we will examine the key findings and recommendations from the roundtable participants for addressing these challenges.

Dan Chenok is executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Alan Howze, a fellow at the IBM Center, is a senior adviser and project manager for the Management Roadmap initiative.

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