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Creating a data-first culture at federal agencies

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In both the public and private sectors, the imperative to be more data-driven is top-of-mind, as organizations realize that informed decision-making is the foundation for success. While this article focuses on data initiatives in the federal environment, the principles discussed here are relevant for all government agencies.

Two bills signed into law on Jan. 14, 2019, put new weight behind the Trump administration's goal of leveraging data as a strategic asset in the development and management of government programs and policies.

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 provides guidelines on how agencies should collect and analyze data to promote effective and efficient policymaking across programs and organizations. Data, not gut feelings or political influence, will determine how policy is created, modified or retired and whether a program achieves its intended objectives.

The legislation also incorporates the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act of 2018, which requires federal agencies to make their program and activity data available in machine-readable format and to maintain and publish inventories of their datasets. The rich datasets captured will be available to the public and, more importantly, shareable among federal agencies. Having accessible data finally gives federal agencies the ability to explore critical metrics about the citizens they are serving, programs they are executing and the results of their work. 

These laws also align with the vision of the President's Management Agenda (PMA), which calls for agencies to leverage data to "grow the economy, increase the effectiveness of the federal government, facilitate oversight and promote transparency." Congressional mandates add teeth to that goal, with the prospect for on-going accountability.

While these mandates will provide a good technical foundation for data initiatives -- along with the compliance requirements that will compel deeper insights -- agencies must also change how they think about data. Promoting a culture of data and analytics is essential for the success of any data initiative.

So what does a culture of analytics look like? Here are three emerging best practices that can foster a data-driven mindset in an organization. At the heart of this vision is a modern analytics platform -- one that integrates seamlessly in an agency's existing IT enterprise, allowing people with a wide range of technical and subject matter expertise to have access to advanced analytics capabilities.

  1. Put data in context with actionable analytics. Given the volume of data that agencies are now collecting, business leaders and program managers can generate countless reports that provide perspective on a given program or policy. But to what end? Is that data driving decisions that make a visible, measurable difference to the mission of the agency or in the lives of citizens? To cultivate a data-driven culture, agencies should emphasize the connection between analytics and outcomes. Questions that probe into the performance of delivering the mission objectives, and not data, must come first. Only when we tie data to specific outcomes can we see the true effectiveness of our programs. Granted, not every analytics initiative can help prevent terrorism, mitigate natural disasters or save millions in taxpayer dollars. However, regardless of scale, all data initiatives undertaken by federal agencies are important -- and the more that employees can see the difference data makes in a positive not punitive way, the more likely they are to adopt a data mindset. With that data-first orientation, a culture of analytics begins to grow.
  2. Use data to tell a story. Some people can pinpoint essential information by thumbing through a PDF report or glean hidden insights by just glancing at a pivot table. However, for most people, it can be difficult to make the connection between raw data and outcomes. We are visual creatures who see and think in color, and we relish relating our experiences through stories. This is why storytelling is so important and why it gets to the heart of evidence-based decision-making. We are wired to learn from stories, and a compelling narrative helps us identify patterns, see cause and effect and focus our attention on what's most important. When we weave a story with data and visual analytics, we help decision-makers absorb information that otherwise they might have missed -- and doing so intuitively, without spreadsheet aversion kicking in.
  1. Drive engagement throughout the org chart. When some people hear the terms evidence-based policymaking and analytics, they associate policymaking with "policymakers" -- effectively pigeonholing analytics as the purview of a few organizational or program leaders. This was true in the time of traditional analytics. Today, in the era of modern analytics, good decision-making depends on providing people throughout an organization with access to the data they need to carry out their responsibilities, and self-service analytics allows them to explore data and discover the answers they need. This democratization of data enables everyone in the organization to gather insights, whether they're simply perusing data to make better decisions or creating complex visualizations. Agencies are likely to find that when they encourage deeper engagement with data, they will see their workforce think more creatively about how to leverage data to generate new insights that will improve policymaking and service delivery.

An opportunity to drive positive change

While the new laws are not enough in and of themselves to create a data-first culture in agencies, they do provide another opportunity for the administration to drive home the message that data-driven decision-making is now an imperative -- and that agencies will be held accountable for seeing this through.

Accountability through compliance to the laws must be enforced if we are to see change. The good news is that taken together the PMA, the new Evidence-Based Planning Act, the DATA Act, the new OPEN Data Act and Federal Data Strategy all mandate enforcement.

Federal agency leaders must use these laws as a catalyst to promote data-first culture across their organizations -- to the point that employees are driving data initiatives because of the value they anticipate, not because of any given mandate. When advocacy and buy-in happens at the individual employee level, leveraging data as a strategic asset becomes second nature.

About the Author

Josh Parenteau is director of product marketing at Tableau Software.

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