Public Sector Leadership and the Relevance of Data

BeasterBy Brittany Beaster, Program Analyst at Mathematica Policy Research

Assuming its position as a centerpiece of public sector conversations over the last few years, data is contributing to a transformational shift in the operations of public service delivery. The landscape in which leaders are required to deliver services—and moreover, acquire, manage, and disperse funding for those services—is rapidly evolving in favor of reducing resource requirements, maximizing positive outcomes, and defending decisions with data all the while. In light of this, it is critical that current and future public leaders ensure that they’re preparing themselves with the tools requisite to success in this environment. Included in this set of tools is having the ability to effectively collect and analyze meaningful data in order to accomplish things such as support program evaluations, defend program funding or build a case for acquiring additional funding, and inform programmatic decisions and policy making. 

The pressures on leaders at all levels of government to measure, defend, repeat have been increasing in parallel to the popularity of “big data” and greater accessibility of information. While program evaluation and funding assessments are activities that have been around for ages, the demand for these activities has become markedly voracious as new technologies have paved the way for analytic capacities once unheard of. It is now not enough to know that your government or your program is doing a good job…you have to prove it. And in a growing number of scenarios, the strings attached to your funding depend on that very proof.

In my work with a municipal financial consulting firm, I have supported several projects aimed at assisting communities grappling with the challenges of defending spending and services through the demonstration of data. A specific example of these projects includes helping communities work through challenges to satisfy funding requirements brought forth in the state’s EVIP revenue sharing policy. In the same way that states are beginning to mandate proof in exchange for funding of local governments, the federal government is placing similar requirements on states. Addressing the challenges, and harnessing the potential, of this large-scale data push is something that I work on every day in my position within the Data Analytics division at Mathematica Policy Research. The point is that for better or for worse, the dawn of data is upon us in the public sector.

Herein lies the need for leaders in the public sector to be, at the very least, comfortable with data collection and analysis and the concepts of information management. That is not to say that those seeking careers in public management need to know how to build a database or how to program queries, but they do need to have the knowledge necessary to engage in real conversations about gathering and leveraging data to evaluate, improve, and in some cases, protect their programs.

Often referred to as “evidence based decision making,” this is not always as simple as it seems, and it is certainly not without challenges in the public sector arena. Even the most sophisticated of data collection systems cannot evade the tougher aspects of decision making in government work. For example, you can feed a database with facts until it’s full, but unless you’ve clearly defined (and gotten everybody to agree upon) the goal of your government services, it won’t matter how much supporting data you have. The opposite could also be true. You may have a very clearly defined goal but are unable to collect the necessary data due to other, unforeseen circumstances. (See: the launch of the City of Ann Arbor’s recycling plan years ago, which included placing RFID chips in residential recycle bins to collect recycle volume data…and then see all of the comments online between citizens instructing each other on how to remove said chips.) It should come as no surprise that citizens are generally skeptical of governments seeking to collect data. (In some of the more cynical circles, any type of government-sponsored data collection is referred to simply as “surveillance.”) Of course in addition to these across-the-board challenges, there also exist challenges stratified by type and size of government that must be acknowledged. Smaller, local governments face a different set of hurdles when it comes to data collection capability and personnel resources than a government of a big city, for example.

When discussing data in the public sector, it is necessary to acknowledge the inherent and unique hurdles that do exist. However, these acknowledgements are a part of larger, important conversations that should be had by leaders in the public sector seeking to improve their odds at success in the future. Data and information management is not a panacea to all government leaders’ woes, but they do provide us with greater opportunities to evaluate and improve and will become increasingly integral components of public management at all levels as we move forward in the information age. With this in mind, it is important that we have leaders who are equipped with not only traditional management acumen, but also a familiarity with data and what it takes to build a system for evidence based decision making.

**In addition to the financial aspect of data and information management discussed in this post, I would also like to mention that there are many more purpose-driven (as opposed to financially motivated) uses of data occurring in local governments across the country today. If you are interested in learning more about projects that are using data to improve the lives of citizens every day,  please visit the Data Smart City Solutions website, powered by the Harvard Kennedy School’s ASH Center.

Brittany Beaster is a Program Analyst at Mathematica Policy Research and 2014 alum of the EMU MPA Program.

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