Welcome to Conversations on Big Data, a series of podcast interviews with federal leaders on how they are using data analytics to prevent and counter tax fraud, improve training, respond to emergencies, protect investors, keep our food supply safe and more.
Between 2011 and 2013, the Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for The Business of Government collaborated on three reports on using data to improve decision-making.
These podcast conversations are designed to broaden the perspective to additional agencies as well as revisit some of those covered in the reports; provide insights into the essential ingredients for a successful analytics program; and offer advice from leaders whose agencies are benefiting from analyzing data.
The podcasts are hosted by Brian Murrow, associate partner of Strategy and Analytics at IBM and Lara Shane, vice president for Research and Communications at the Partnership.
Check back each Wednesday for the release of a new conversation, and join the conversation on Twitter #missionanalytics.
Q: What advice would you give to others on how to improve their data analytics programs?
A: They have to understand their data. That’s very important. If they can’t get good access to their data or in an understandable format, then you’re not going to get anywhere, and that’s what most agencies are struggling with right now. You need to buy good tools and then the next part is finding good analysts.
Q: What role does leadership play in making analytics successful?
A: Leadership is critical. It takes time to get the infrastructure in place so you need leadership who understands and is willing to back you during this time of growth. Additionally, you’re always going to have the people who want to do things the way they’ve always done things and having senior leadership step in and say we’ve got to do things differently is critical.
Q: Why do you think some agencies struggle with their use of analytics?
A: There are a couple of core problems. One is they’re not particularly familiar with it. The other piece of it is that many agencies don’t have enough data scientists, or the data scientists are removed from the operational people, and if they’re not consulting with each other, they simply go off in different tangents, in different directions and you don’t get what you really need.
Q: Why is it so important to use data analytics?
A: Leaders are always better off having data and an increased understanding of how things work, and how they might work more effectively, both to make decisions and to define the problem. The latter is frequentl’ not thought of as a major focus of data analytics, but defining the problem is where it all starts. Einstein once said, if he was given 60 minutes to solve a problem, he’d spend 50 minutes thinking about it and framing the problem and the 10 minutes solving it. None of us are Einsteins, but the principle still applies.
Q: What changes would you make to FEMA’s analytics program if you had leeway to change anything you wanted to?
A: My wish list is that we could get a common vision across the organization. If I’m solving a problem for my team’s ability to use data, I need to solve it for the entire enterprise, getting everybody to agree on what tool we all need, how do we all get access to the right data, and how do we do that in a secure environment where we trust each other. Once you have that in place, there is no limit. You’ll just unleash the talent of people to do predictive modeling and all kinds of stuff you see happening elsewhere.
Q: What are the important elements you need for a good analytics program?
A: You have to have some leadership support because it does require an investment. You also need to have champions both on the analytical side and on the program side—some data junkies who really love measuring and understanding and analyzing how an organization ticks, and some program managers on the front lines who get it, who are willing to embrace it and work with the analysts and improve their organization to make that part of their organizational culture.
Q: What is your message to agencies embarking on the budget process and seeking to use analytics?
A: Engage a set of people who think this could be worthwhile and/or already have a problem or goal they’re trying to achieve and that you could apply this to. This helps you avoid that cycle of collecting hundreds of metrics that aren’t relevant to the problem.
The Partnership for Public Service is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to revitalize our federal government by inspiring a new generation to serve and by transforming the way government works.
The Partnership for Public Service, in collaboration with IBM’s Public Sector Business Analytics & Optimization practice, set out to study federal agencies’ use of analytics and how it helped them achieve better program results. We focused on identifying leading practices that illustrate how data informs decisions and drives meaningful and positive program changes. In particular, we were interested to know how employing good data led to changes in how agencies think about their programs and how it led to programmatic insights that influenced their decisions.
The Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for The Business of Government released, “From Data to Decisions II: Building an Analytics Culture.” This second report on using information to measure and improve performance examines what it really takes to build analytics into an agency’s decision-making processes and culture. The report includes concrete steps for building a discipline approached to analytics and profiles of seven agencies using analytics to achieve better results.
The Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for the Business of Government set out to learn how agency leaders and program managers can get past the hype about big data to reap mission value from analytics.