Demand for data-driven models supplies agencies with decision making power

Thursday - 11/21/2013, 4:40am EST

Jason Miller reports.

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Agencies' move toward making decisions based on data is turning the concept of supply and demand on its head. The more information senior leaders receive, the more data they want to make strategic decisions.

Take the U.S. Agency for International Development. It jumped into the data-driven decision-making pool more than 25 years ago when famine struck Ethiopia and the Sudan.

USAID relied on what many would say now were rudimentary satellite images to figure out exactly where it should send food and other aid to these nations, and why the famine occurred in the first place.

Gary Eilerts, the program manager for USAID's Famine Early Warning Systems Network, said it took the agency years to get really good at using the data to make decisions. But now that it has, the agency understands its value.

"If there's been one abiding feature of our program it's that we've gotten better at asking questions. I think that is really an extremely difficult thing to do at the beginning. We didn't know what questions we could ask," Eilerts said during a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service. "We really only got fairly good at it about 10 years ago, so 19 years struggling to ask our questions. About 10 years ago, we figured that there is a better way to do this and it is by asking our people to help us solve our problems directly, rather than them delivering the products that they thought would help us."

It's that idea of asking good questions that is the lynchpin for changing the culture of the government. More and more agencies over the last decade have moved toward a culture of measuring program performance through data, and using those measurements to influence budget decisions.

As part of our special report, A New Era in Technology, Federal News Radio explores how data-driven decision making is getting to be the driving force behind spending and program strategies.

Getting better all the time

The concept of using data to make decisions isn't new. Both the George W. Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration have spent a lot of energy on collecting, understanding and using data.

The Bush administration launched the Performance Assessment Ratings Tool (PART) to focus on large scale initiatives such as technology or human resources.

The Obama administration pared down the approach, asking agencies to focus on 3- to-8 high priority goals, and only introduced cross agency goals in the last few years.

But the goal of all of these efforts was to use data to make better programmatic and back-office decisions.

Dustin Brown, the acting associate director for performance and personnel at the Office of Management and Budget, said USAID's experience with using data is becoming more common across the government.

"I think in the past a lot of the efforts focused on increasing the supply of performance information. What we really tried to do is operate from a somewhat different premise that really the key aspect to get right was increasing the demand for the use of data to inform decision-making," he said. "If you get that in place first, if you get the leaders engaged on a regular basis, then the access to data and analytical tools really will come along. Essentially that's what we are hearing from agencies now. The leadership is engaged and the challenge really has become making sure we get the metrics right and effectively for decision making."

Brown said a real example of this change is OMB initially encouraged agencies to hold quarterly data-driven reviews. He said today about one-third of all agencies are holding monthly reviews of their programmatic information.

Interest coming from program side

Along with the top down push for more decisions based on data, other evidence shows there's also a bottom up push from the program side.

The Partnership for Public Service recently pushed a second report looking at how agencies are using data to make decisions. Working with the IBM Center for the Business of Government, the Partnership highlighted case studies from five agencies, including USAID.

"One of the interesting commonalities among the five is they really are being driven by the program folks who have a problem they can see get better results by using data analytics," said Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service. "That's distinct from someone on top of the government thou shall use analytics. It's really home-grown. I think these five are successful for that reason. The analytics are directly connected to a real problem that program folks have, and therefore they are making their lives better, they're improving the mission's impact and they're using these tools because it has real effect on what they are trying to achieve."