4 Basic Questions to Create a Data Culture

When it comes to being data-driven, agencies are ready to move from excitement to execution.

They’ve heard the pitches and have been convinced of the stories. Now, they want to execute what they’ve been told about data. And that requires an organizational culture that is built for it.

To create a data culture, there are some foundational elements to consider, said Chris Atkins, Vice President for Digital Government Transformation at SAP, an enterprise software company.

First, it can’t just be executives leading the effort inside agencies. “It has to be everyone in the organization pulling toward the same direction and contributing to the culture,” Atkins said.

That means leaders and managers, in particular, must think of themselves as consumers of data. They must lead by continually asking for data to solve mission and business challenges.

“You have to be willing to ask the right questions. And that sets the stage for getting the right answers,” Atkins said. He shared four questions to guide data-driven problem-solving.

  1. What happened? Collect information about the past. For example, what were wait times in call centers around tax season?
  2. Why did it happen? Understand the past. For example, why were wait times so long in one particular call center?
  3. Will it happen again? Anticipate the future. Will long wait times recur in this location the following tax season?
  4. How should we change? Adjust strategies and actions based on insights on the past and future. For instance, how will the agency shorten wait times and improve the tax return process for constituents?

These are questions data can help answer, and they increase in maturity. Some agencies are building their capability to address No. 1, while others are already tackling No. 4.

The key to answering these questions is a focus on outcomes. Agencies traditionally tend to be process-oriented, stopping at answering question No. 1 and not moving on. It’s critical to shift the mindset from being about inputs – how many applications did we process? – to impacts – how many applicants didn’t
need extra assistance?

The good news is agencies are getting there. They are moving from the “slope of enlightenment” to the “plateau of productivity” when it comes to data and analytics use, Atkins said, referring to the Gartner Hype Cycle that plots emerging technology’s journey to widespread adoption.

“Today, for SAP’s customers it’s all about execution and their ability to provide the insights a data-driven application can deliver on a regular basis,” Atkins said. “We’ve seen them accelerate their implementations of data-driven government in recent years, and that makes me even more excited about the future as it relates to data.”

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s guide “Your Field Notes for Data-Driven Decision-Making in Government: Case Studies on Work Culture, Equity and More.”

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