Data

First, admit you have a problem

Shutterstock image (by Robert Adrian Hillman): Abstract design for broken code.

(Image: Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock)

Sometimes the bad news can be more important than the good news – if only the message is heeded.

Greg Godbout, the EPA’s CTO, founder of 18F and owner of the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, called on his fellow government honchos to show “adaptive leadership” when it comes to data and decision-making.

He used his own failure to demonstrate data’s power.

Godbout told the audience at AFCEA Bethesda’s June 30 Data Symposium how his cinema suffered two negative quarters at the end of 2014, and he was caught off-guard.

“Our customers changed their buying habits, and I missed it,” Godbout said. “The data proved, without a doubt, that I suck.”

By pouring through the data, Godbout was eventually able to see that changing Arlington, Va., neighborhoods had brought in customers who cared less about price than they did quality and entertainment, and so, swallowing his pride, Godbout slashed budget offerings and focused on improving the quality of the entertainment he booked for his venue (which hosts musicians and other acts in addition to movies).

“We fundamentally changed the direction of the whole business based on that one day [of data analysis],” Godbout said.

It pained him to admit mistakes, but the moves helped make the first quarter of 2015 profitable for his business.

“I wonder,” Godbout said, “is the federal government ready for leadership that will say, upon seeing signs of things going wrong, ‘OK, I suck, this was a bad initiative, let’s go in a different direction?’”

He stressed the importance of user-centered design and empirical evidence showing exactly how a project is succeeding or failing.

“User-centered design is actually data-driven metrics,” Godbout said, while stakeholder-centered design boils down to the “hunches” of bigwigs.

“We follow metrics that are silly,” Godbout said of the government, recalling how one agency he worked with based performance reviews on hiring data rather than performance metrics.

“HealthCare.gov was I think a green light on Performance.gov the day it released and failed,” he noted.

“That dashboard, to me, loses credibility.”

The next few years will be characterized by a flood of data scientists coming into government and helping improve processes, Godbout predicted.

They’ll also help validate – or invalidate – their bosses’ hunches.

“It’s great to have a hunch. Hunches are important,” he said. “But we need to then have evidence to back up those hunches.”

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


Featured

  • Cybersecurity

    DHS floats 'collective defense' model for cybersecurity

    Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen wants her department to have a more direct role in defending the private sector and critical infrastructure entities from cyberthreats.

  • Defense
    Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies at an April 12 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

    Mattis: Cloud deal not tailored for Amazon

    On Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought to quell "rumors" that the Pentagon's planned single-award cloud acquisition was designed with Amazon Web Services in mind.

  • Census
    shutterstock image

    2020 Census to include citizenship question

    The Department of Commerce is breaking with recent practice and restoring a question about respondent citizenship last used in 1950, despite being urged not to by former Census directors and outside experts.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.