Data analytics could transform federal management much the way the proliferation of smartphones and mobile technology has reshaped society at large.
But that will require a full-scale culture change at agencies, with both managers and rank-and-file employees willing to sign on to a data-driven work environment.
That’s the message of a new report, “Data to Decisions II: Building an Analytics Culture,” from the Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for the Business of Government. It’s a follow-up to a guide published last November, which identified the ways a few forward-thinking agencies used data analytics.
The latest report aims to identify “day-to-day practices that can help build and sustain an analytics culture, drive meaningful changes and achieve mission results.”
A 2010 update to the Government Performance Management Act enshrined the practice of data analytics into law, creating frameworks for governmentwide planning and reporting and instituting periodic program reviews.
The threat of budget cuts, including the sequestration cuts set to take effect in January, mean federal spending and programs face heavy scrutiny, said Tom Fox, the partnership’s vice president for leadership and innovation.
“With programs under the microscope, it’s essential that you’re able to demonstrate some bottom-line results within the federal government, not only to your senior-level decisionmakers but to the employees you’re working with,” Fox said in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. They want to know that the work they’re doing is really having an impact and benefiting the American people.”
Still, agency leaders who understand — and use — analytics remain the outliers. “Their colleagues simply cannot envision the benefits that analytics could bring to their agencies,” the authors of the new report wrote. “These early adopters, on the other hand, understand the value of analytics and why everyone should consider using such an approach. Many of them are attempting to convince the ‘I’m not so sure I need or want this’ crowd why gathering data and using analytics will provide powerful tools for improving performance.”
In compiling the report, the authors conducted focus groups and interviewed officials from a number of agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Transportation Security Administration, the Health and Human Services Department and the General Services Administration, among others.
The report pointed to three building blocks for wider adoption of data analytics.
Aim for a systematic approach
The first step in building an analytics culture is to focus on the details, both large and small, of an agency’s mission as well as the resources that go into fulfilling them, the report stated. For example, a manager at the Transportation Security Administration brainstormed with his team to compile an exhaustive list of the various tasks and skills required of transportation security officers. That list, totaling more than 1,300 items, was then used to identify trends and spot weaknesses in how the officers were doing their jobs.
The goal is for agencies to take a “systematic and disciplined approach,” the report stated, “looking methodically at what they do, how well they do it and how it is measured.”
Losing the gut instinct, getting leaders to buy in
The successful use of data analytics often boils down to how the practice is viewed by agency leadership at all rungs of the organizational ladder.
“For analytics to become an integral part of agency activities, leaders must live by example, using data for decisions in an open and transparent manner,” the report stated. “Leaders can be at any level within an organization, but to make analytics a way of doing business requires them to be relentless in their efforts to make decisions based on facts, rather than to rely on gut instincts or conventional wisdom.”
But it’s not only managers who are often skeptical of data analytics. Some employees fear that robust data collection and analysis may simply be a high-tech tool to assign blame when goals aren’t met.
“The myth is that someone gets thrown under the bus in a performance culture,” one of the focus group participants told the authors of the report.
In that case, managers should include employees in the development of performance metrics, listen to feedback and work to “dispel that fear by explaining that data measures are used to pinpoint and fix mistakes in processes, not to point fingers at employees,” the report stated.
The human factor
Perfecting the use of analytics isn’t only about buying new technology and installing the most up-to-date software, according to the report.
The report identified the “human factor” — getting employees to agree to change business as usual — as crucial to developing an analytics culture.
It recommended convening a diverse group of employees, even some from outside a particular program or work area, to facilitate broader knowledge sharing.
“Agencies we spoke with are bringing in frontline program people, analytics staff, subject-matter experts and stakeholders as they apply systematic approaches for gaining a deeper understanding of their activities,” the authors of the report wrote.