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Using Data to Make Better Decisions in Your Agency

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"Moneyball" is a highly entertaining movie that showed how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane used data to improve his baseball team's performance.

It turned out, for example, that on-base percentages were more important than batting averages as an indicator of a hitter's effectiveness because a walk can also get a player on base.

Government agencies also collect data that can be valuable to managers who oversee teams trying to achieve their agencies' goals and missions. And government leaders, like baseball executives, can use this data to pinpoint problems, highlight successes and figure out better or more efficient ways to run programs.

With the nation facing fiscal uncertainty and public attitudes toward government at unpleasant lows, it is crucial that federal leaders base decisions on accurate data and not anecdotes, assumptions or Hail Mary passes. Oh wait, wrong sport. But you get the idea.

My organization, the Partnership for Public Service, recently released a report titled "From Data to Decisions: The Power of Analytics," which focused on agencies not just collecting data, but gathering the correct data and using it to drive change. We found vivid examples of government managers making programs more effective by quantifying information and learning how improvements could best be made.

Obviously, every agency is different and leaders will have to figure out the best ways to collect and crunch their agencies' data, but all organizations are likely to gain insights from doing so. The report also points out agencies really don't need to have the latest technology to do data analysis and not everything needs to be measured.

Below are some examples of how several agencies have used data to revamp or advance their programs.

Getting veterans into homes - In analyzing the effectiveness of a program to end veterans' homelessness by 2015, run jointly by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, HUD changed how it gauged success. Instead of measuring the number of housing vouchers issued, the agency started looking at the percentage of vouchers homeless veterans actually used to get a roof over their heads--a more precise indicator of who took advantage of the program. In addition, the agencies used data to analyze where the bottlenecks were in the housing process so they could focus attention on them.

Better patient care - For a long time, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services concentrated on how well nursing homes, hospitals and transplant centers complied with regulations and whether they were staffed properly, rather than focusing on the quality of the patient care. The agency changed its perspective and now mines its data to look at trends in the quality of health care at these facilities. They use that data to direct scare resources to where they will have the most impact.

Safety in the skies - The Federal Aviation Administration has always been able to investigate accidents after they've happened. Think "black box." The goal now is to reduce risk by analyzing flight-related processes and identifying problems and hazards so they can be avoided. An agency-wide safety management approach includes an employee-reporting system that collects information from people closest to the hazards, such as someone who witnessed an error by an air-traffic controller. Those employees can report safety issues and have their identities protected and not face punishment for revealing vulnerabilities. The agency uses the important data they receive to understand what factors contribute to flight risks and how to address them.

Click it or ticket - The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) helped increase seat belt use in this country to 85 percent in 2010, up from 11 percent in 1985. It was not an easy sell. NHTSA had early evidence that seat belts saved lives, but it didn't have the authority to decree their use. By doing controlled experiments on what motivated people to change their behavior, NHTSA was able to gather the data that showed media campaigns highlighting enforcement rather than safety, combined with actual enforcement, did the trick to influence people's behavior.

Does your agency take advantage of the data it collects? Please share lessons you've learned about the advantages of using data analysis for accomplishing your mission by adding a comment below, or by sending an email to me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.