The First Step is to Acknowledge You Have a Problem: Driving Decisions in Public Policy


There are always people in your life that utter one sentence or phrase that sticks with you forever.  Something that changes your view or approach on life. One for me was a professor of organizational psychology who said he hated the phrase “it was a breakdown in communication” as a way to justify organizational issues. He stated that the phrase was overused and did not address the source of the problem. What was missing, he would go on to state, is that most people and organizations avoid understanding the severity of the issue. I realized, there is a difference in acknowledging a problem and addressing a problem head on.

Recently, I have been meeting with my colleagues to research all of the major issues governments will focus on in the coming years. It is interesting to me, that some of the problems that are surfacing have been discussed before, they are just relabeled. Years later, we still find ourselves with no solution to the same problems. What most people do not know, is that the first step, identifying the problem, is easy. The second step, understanding the problem and how to address it, is where the real challenge lies.

We now see the rise in phrases like data-driven decisions and the creation of positions like chief data officers, chief analytics officers, and data scientists. I think this newfound attention on data and advanced analytics will allow us to address the second step. Take the national discussion on mental health: we know there is a problem, but do we know the where, the why, and the how, to begin solving it?  At a recent conference, I posed this exact question, and challenged the audience: who would be the first to map mental health? After my talk, an audience member approached me about a theory that focusing on mental illness would also help solve migration patterns of the homeless. He had data and analytics that showed the mentally ill in his community often congregated near their outpatient care. This meant he knew where these homeless populations would be and where his organization should dedicate resources to providing a holistic approach. Could he move mental health resources closer to homeless shelters so everyone would receive the same level of care?

This is very similar to the opioid crisis we are fighting now, where the same approach is taken to combine data from various disciplines. With the opioid epidemic, we are seeing the analysis of law enforcement data overlaid with health and human services data to reveal new insights that help us develop tactics to begin putting a dent in the problem. Simply put, organizations will address the problem differently because they analyze the problem more holistically. With the growing access of data and simple-to-use analytic tools, we are seeing that the barrier to better understanding is diminished.

Here are four steps to get started making data-driven decisions:

  • Access available data through open data portals, to analyze information from various departments.
  • Leverage the analytical tools available, which oftentimes you may have access to.
  • Take bold steps to communicate the problem, shifting from endless reports and charts to interactive infographics and story maps.
  • Based on your findings, define tactics to allocate resources and update stakeholders in real time through agile applications and operational dashboards.

These four steps will allow your organization to make decisions and policies that will make a significant difference and can be adjusted in real time. Prioritizing a fluid approach to problems, as opposed to a static method, will help governments address these problems that we have been dealing with for years.

Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here

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