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The Public Sector’s Use of Data to Improve Well-Being


Over the next 12 weeks, I will write about the collection and rigorous use of government and other data to develop achievable solutions to some of the most serious social problems that challenge our elected and appointed federal, state and local government leaders.  It’s a complicated topic because of–borrowing the four P idea from marketing–politics, privacy, personnel, and price.

  • Politics affects everything in the public sector. An example of how politics affects data is how the decennial census has become a partisan issue.  Special interests underlie much of what happens in technology just as they do every sphere of government.
  • Individual and organizational privacy is a major issue that we expect government to take care of for us. Yet privacy is of widespread public concern as seemingly more and more public and private sector data breaches come to our attention.
  • Attracting qualified technical personnel into the pubic sector is hard because big business provides more attractive compensation and working conditions. Computing professionals in the public sector are needed at a minimum just to procure technology and skilled services.
  • Policymakers at all levels of government have not invested uniformly in a 21st-century technical infrastructure because the price is simply too high. Furthermore, programs for the vulnerable are often last to receive state of the art technology.

For close to five decades, government has been making the transition from paper to digital storage of the data it needs to operate. While there hasn’t been exponential growth in the use of data and technology across government entities, it’s fair to say that the growth has been linear. Leaders at local, state and federal levels now have executive staff that think about how best to collect, store, and use data across all domains with the emergence of government CIOs, CDOs, CTOs …

In my blog posts, I will focus primarily on services that government provides to the most vulnerable populations: children and adolescents, poor families, individuals with disabilities, victims of violence, and the elderly.  Improving the information we have on these groups and the services they receive is where I have spent my career. I hope to offer some insight into where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going.  Check back in the weeks to come for deeper dives into big data, ethics, the workforce, the cost of technology, open data, data standards, and open source software in the public sector.

I leave you with good news.  While a little late to the “data science party” compared to big business, government leaders are now paying attention to their data resources and the potential for improving policy and program efficiency and effectiveness.  A somewhat surprising bi-partisan effort is  Speaker Ryan and Senator Murray (D-WA) having submitted bills in each chamber of Congress to develop a Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. (It’s passed in the House.) This commission will be charged to “determine the optimal arrangement for which administrative data on Federal programs and tax expenditures and related data series may be integrated and made available to facilitate program evaluation, policy-relevant research, and cost-benefit analyses” and “make recommendations on how data infrastructure and statistical protocols should be modified” to achieve this.  This Commission will be a big deal and, unless you are among the most skeptical or a conspiracy theorist, this commission will turbocharge the awareness of the power of data at all levels of government.

Robert Goerge 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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