How good data aids agency decision-making

Federal agencies wanting to harness the power of data analytics to achieve better program results could be in for a long project. Gathering data is only the starting point in turning facts and numbers into information federal managers can use to make decisions.

Although virtually every federal agency collects data, many grapple with how to best turn it into useful information to improve mission performance and effectiveness, write the authors of a new report from the Partnership for Public Service and IBM’s Business Analytics & Optimization practice.

Related story: What analytics can tell us about the American mind

“From Data to Decisions: The Power of Analytics” surveyed a number of federal agencies to identify best practices in data analytics and performance management. The Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Department's veteran housing program, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Medicare program and the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety management system were found to be among the examples of how to best use data analytics to drive decision-making and performance.

What these programs primarily had in common was support from leadership. Those leaders focused on transparency, accountability and results. They shared information not only within their own agency but with outside partners, and they communicated clear expectations from the staff.

Typically agencies that invested in technology, tools and talent were also shown to be successful in data analytics. Although state-of-the-art tools may help conduct the most thorough analysis of data, progress also can be made using existing software programs, the report found. 

“The tools aren’t as important as the insights they foster,” the authors of the report noted. For example, the HUD incorporates various data for performance management meetings on a readily available computer spreadsheet while developing business intelligence capability that allows users to analyze data in more sophisticated ways.

FAA is also making sure that those employees who are not “versed in statistical theory” understand the benefits of the information they have and how to use it. The agency is developing tools to make it easier to pull together data from different sources and to read and analyze it.

But to create a culture comfortable with using analytics requires a longterm commitment from agencies, the report said. Managers have to convey a message to the whole organization about continuous improvement. In addition, leadership needs to know what it want to achieve with analytics and communicate it openly. And staff must have a good understanding how it contributes to program results.

“There will undoubtedly be bumps along the road to a successful analytics program,” the authors of the report noted. “The most important next move is to get started, with the understanding that many of the details and subsequent steps can be learned along the way.”

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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