Officials Talk Data, Performance Measures for Better Government

There is a widely circulated dream within the halls of local governments everywhere: Let the data do the driving. In this ideal system, cost savings and efficiencies coexists with cohesive programs and better decision-making abilities, and the public is satisfied with the majority of the outcomes.

For local government and industry panelists at the Governing Leadership Forum in Sacramento, Calif., held Tuesday, Dec. 8, the question of how to meet this illusive reverie was the main topic of discussion.

In San Mateo, Deputy County Manger Peggy Jensen said the jurisdiction examined available data to get a better handle on a costly voucher program focused on housing homeless families.

“I think some of the best examples that I can come up with — where we have actually used data to change policy, to implement programs — have been when we looked at specific issues, when we’ve had a very specific question,” she said. “So we may have data at a high level off of a budget dashboard, but we have a problem that we want to address.”

Through a combination of collaboration between county departments and shared programmatic data, officials were able to better evaluate the ballooning service costs and focus the efforts toward those in need, Jensen said.

“Part of our dashboard numbers indicated that we were going from about $800,000 a year to over $2 million a year in what we call our motel voucher program,” she said. “What we saw were skyrocketing costs in that program.”

While much of the work government does happens in disjointed departments, Lon Peterson, communications manager with the city of Palo Alto, said breaking the typical barriers was key in putting the city on a more efficient path.

Diving into available data began to show officials where inconsistencies and inefficiencies existed within the city departments.

“Some of the issues with siloes is that you collect your data in that particular silo, and then it’s not shared in a citywide, countywide or statewide way,” Peterson said. “One of the things that Palo Alto did, which I think is incredible, was they crossed division and department lines and started looking at data in a much different way to where they were able to make changes to our process and actually change some outcomes.”

Peterson said reorganization efforts within the planning and development departments helped to create a more functional inward- and outward-facing organization.

Additionally, the city published its findings in a manner that would allow public stakeholders to follow its projects as officials make their way through the city process, and keep tabs on which department might be holding it up.

“What they did is they all got together and looked at all of the data and the processes, and developed a dashboard that would outline the particular process from the beginning of it to the very end,” Peterson said. “They were able to start seeing where those bottlenecks and clogs are, and how to fix stuff in a way that wasn’t, ‘Hey we’re doing it wrong, your department is holding this up.’ It allowed them to shift resources…”

From an industry standpoint, Steve Middlekauff, director Health and Human Services with Unisys, said data-driven decision-making is not a new concept — but the way in which it is being approached has changed substantially.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of states across the U.S. or subsets of states — maybe counties in particular — that are more progressive and have taken advantage of tools,” he said. “They have started to ask themselves the question from a new paradigm in terms of, ‘What business are we in?’”

For data to be truly useful to an organization, Middlekauff said clear target goals must be clearly identified.

“The conversation is pretty universal. Yes, we are creating new data, so the pile is getting larger, but at what point do we step back and ask the question of, ‘What is the function of government? What business are we in?” he said. “What may have been a citizen need 20 years ago or 30 years ago, that need may still exist, but the way you need to provide services may have changed dramatically.”

While the idea of collaboration and data sharing may seem simple, departments relating to health and human services will be limited in their capacity to provide certain sensitive datasets.

Middlekauff went on to warn that technology is not often the barrier to clear data, in his experience. Oftentimes, he said, regulations and policy stand in the way of productive data-centered efforts.

“Technology, and this has been true for a very long time, is pretty much never the issue,” he said. “Often we have tendency to blame it or we keep thinking there’s a breakthrough that’s going to solve it, but I would just put out there that it’s never really been the issue.”