There’s a lot of power in being able to say exactly and numerically just how smart and successful you are. For instance, certain job applications have minimum college GPA requirements. Alternately, who hasn’t been amongst friends when the loaded discussion of SAT scores surfaces? Contentious or not, it’s important tool for professional development (and bragging rights) to be able to put a number on your own capabilities.

The same goes in the government. The government needs to have numbers and hard data by which to analyze their performance. Deloitte University Press recently published a report entitled “Accountability Quantified: What 26 Years of GAO Reports Can Teach Us About Government Management.” On the podcast DorobekINSIDER, two of the reports authors, Daniel Byler and William Eggers, spoke with host Chris Dorobek on the findings of the report. Byler is a lead data scientist with Deloitte, and Eggers is Deloitte’s Global Public Sector Research Director.

But giving the government a quantifiable “GPA” is no easy task. Deloitte’s challenge was to take the 10,000 GAO reports since 1983, or the 40,000 GAO recommendations (over 1.3 million pages) and boil it down to data.

This task has never been done before, and its approach is somewhat revolutionary. “The reason I specifically did this report is that I really haven’t seen other people utilize the GAO report as data,” explained Byler. “Everybody looked at them like a report.”

So how, exactly, can this enormous task be done?

To analyze these reports as data, you first have to define your central question – what do you want the data to tell you? “You have to have a central question that you’re interested in answering,” said Byler. “Just saying ‘looking at the data in this kind of context’ is really a recipe for disaster, which is why we structured the report around seven different key questions that we were trying to answer with the data.”

Another important capability in doing this analysis is text analytics, or using computers to glean the information from the reports in a quantifiable format. The key here is digital data.

“You have to have all of your data in an electronic and machine readable format,” said Byler. “Basically, what that means is going from paper reports into electronic forms that are easy for text analytics programs to read.”

Byler and Eggers pinpointed one caveat to the success of their research – the quality of their data. The GAO reports represented an unusually high standard of government data – not all government reports are so consistent.

Eggers and Byler encouraged the replication of this kind of research among federal agencies, but they cautioned that it might not always be quite so easy to carry out. “Agency heads need to remember that sometimes their dataset is going to be tremendous, like the quality we had with the GAO,” said Byler. “But if you’re not there yet, you shouldn’t be intimidated by a feeling that your data is partial, or not well coded. Everybody has to start somewhere.”

So, whether the grading process will be painful or not, it’s still worth it to develop a quantifiable number to give you bragging rights on your performance. In part two of the interview, we’ll cover what exactly the GAO’s bragging rights are – the results of Deloitte’s report.

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