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Coordinating Data to Improve Government Programs

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President Obama has placed streamlining government bureaucracy among his priorities, saying he wants to "hunt down and eliminate misspent tax dollars in every agency and department across the Federal Government." That could be like shooting fish in a barrel, if his administration takes a few major steps to facilitate better coordination between agencies.

When people think of reducing government waste, they often think of cutting spending and slashing programs. But there are other ways to save money that don't come at the cost of the public good. Coordination among agencies offers financial savings without hacking away at public protections.

Different social services programs, run by different federal agencies, often have shared goals. Those goals are important and worthwhile -- distributing financial assistance, reducing poverty or homelessness, expanding access to education -- but they can almost certainly be accomplished better if agencies work together to address them.

The biggest barrier to streamlining agencies' work is that they often speak different languages or don't speak to each other at all. Data is the tongue of the federal government and too often data and information from one agency's program is incompatible with data collected by another. This discord makes it difficult to evaluate or coordinate the programs, which in turn means a loss of efficiency for the taxpayer's dollar.

The problems can even boil down to questions of semantics. In the context of homelessness prevention, a mis-match among agencies' definitions of the term "homelessness," can create friction between a state's Head Start program and HUD. This makes it hard to see how the provision of one service affects the success of another, and whether the interrelationship could be leveraged to ensure that, for example, kids whose families are in transitional housing have access to effectual early-childhood education.

In worst-case scenarios, agencies don't collect or share data at all. Two programs may be covering the same territory but each could have the other in a data blind spot. But government needs to know if one is getting better results than the other, there are shortcuts that could be shared, tips they should both be employing, or redundancies that could be eliminated. They will never know if they don't share notes.

Take the case of agencies providing services for low-income children: officials at the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services didn't know how many children were served by early learning and child care services for kids under 5 years old -- they simply weren't tracking it. And HHS does not keep track of the number of working families getting TANF-funded child care. These groups could be maximizing their efforts by collecting and sharing data.

No one would argue that coordinating the huge federal bureaucracy is an easy task. Congress plays a major role in structuring which agencies are tasked with which responsibilities, sometimes with an eye more to protecting committee jurisdiction that efficient government operation. And after years of scrambling for scraps of funding and institutionalized understaffing, agencies have developed cultures of avoiding project without immediate and clear payouts.

There are many competing and conflicting priorities among federal agencies and turning the ship around will take strong leadership. But it is eminently do-able and necessary if the needs of the American public are to be fairly balanced with the costs.

The Obama administration, should begin this process. Agencies should be given the tools and the incentive to overcome these communication barriers and work together more often. There are specific steps the president's staff can and should take to accomplish greater coordination, including bringing agency heads and information-technology experts together in the same room.

If agencies could share notes, speak the same language, and consider each other partners, they would better serve taxpayers and the beneficiaries of their programs. By sharing data, using the same metrics and coordinating on the sub-populations most often serviced by government programs, the impact of social services would improve and every tax dollar would be stretched.

Rather than chop away at services that improve the lives of the American public, it makes more to maximize the effectiveness of the programs it offers now and deliver major public benefits for less money.

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