Data Analytics: Turning Numbers Into Good Government

When civil servants hear the words “data analytics,” they typically think of endless spreadsheets and numbers that mean very little to their day-to-day tasks. In reality, data analytics are a powerful tool that can improve every agency’s performance and transform their business processes. Although agency leaders are starting to recognize the value of data analytics, they still face challenges implementing and integrating the use of data into everyday functions that advance the mission.

On this week’s DorobekINSIDER, Elder Research Inc.’s Founder, John Elder, and Director, Bryan Jones, two experts on public sector data analytics, discussed how to overcome data analytics challenges in government. Hannah Moss, Senior Editor and Program Manager at GovLoop and author of GovLoop’s recent guide, “Putting Data Analytics at the Forefront of Your Agency,” also offered her insights on the benefits of expanding the use of data at agencies.

First, Elder broadly defined data analytics as any information gathering, decision- making process, or problem solving mechanism that helps agencies gain insight into their operations or the people they serve. “Analytics can be as simple as reporting data or it can be as complex as making forecasts and models to predict trends,” he said.

In addition, “data analytics allows agencies to translate information into something actionable that is relatable to your business,” Jones noted. While at the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General, Jones was able to use visual data analytics to better track and investigate fraud claims. It transformed the way the office conducted investigations because instead of being reactive and waiting for employees to come to them with complaints, the analysts could be proactive in finding fraud in high-risk areas.

Despite some leaders wanting to adopt data analytics practices within an agency, they still face challenges, particularly when they are getting started. Elder, Moss and Jones offered the following tips to move your agency toward a culture of data analytics:

  • Do your homework: Before implementing or increasing the use of data analytics, employees need to have an understanding of what data, platforms and requirements already exist at their agency. Elder advised that once leaders investigate their baseline status, they can then explore what problems at the agency can be solved with data analytics and the platforms that are best suited to solve those issues. Jones also noted that agencies that are just starting the process should observe how other agencies employ data, and they can mimic best practices.
  • Start somewhere — anywhere: It may seem overwhelming once you think about all the useful data your organization could or currently does collect, but Elder and Jones agreed that you just have to start someplace. Maybe that involves collecting one data point over time. But once you show the value of the metric and insights to your agency leaders and peers, they will be more open to using data in other capacities.
  • Make it everybody’s job: Data scientists are not the only people in an agency responsible for data analytics. “There is no way to use data analytics effectively in an organization if only one part of the organization is involved in producing and interpreting data,” Moss said. “Data scientists merely enable the rest of the agency.” It is up to leaders and frontline employees to find ways they can use various skills and tools to efficiently and effectively incorporate data into everyday processes. She added that not all data analysis must employ quantitative data. Employees could also use visuals or storytelling techniques to create powerful narratives to inform stakeholders.
  • Follow through: Although leaders may think they have picked the perfect message and the perfect platform to get frontline employees to use data analytics, they still need to follow through to ensure full adoption. “When we reviewed our work with various clients, we saw only two-thirds of our solutions were actually being utilized,” Elder said. “That was a failure. That’s why we started using better change management practices with employees, because technology alone is not the answer.” Creating and leveraging a culture of data analytics will help leaders embed solutions in everyday operations and assist the implementation process.

Once an agency overcomes the cultural resistance and the initial challenges of implementation, data analytics can be used as a powerful problem-solving tool that improves the everyday operations and performance of any agency.

For more information on implementing data analytics, read GovLoop’s recent guide, “Putting Data Analytics at the Forefront of Your Agency,” or listen to this week’s full DorobekINSIDER Live here.

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