Creating an interactive website capable of synthesizing multiple data streams can take years and cost thousands of dollars, but after a roughly eight-month sprint, Missouri debuted what it believes is the first economic performance dashboard launched by a state treasurer.
The website, MissouriDashboard.com, went live on Friday, Sept. 8, after a build that began in earnest following newly-elected Missouri state Treasurer Eric Schmitt’s inauguration on Monday, Jan. 9.
Schmitt told Government Technology that the Missouri Economic Dashboard’s focus is in some ways reflective of the arrival of a group of newly-elected top state officials — including Gov. Eric Greitens, Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, Attorney General Josh Hawley and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft — and their desires to improve government.
It was “more than a generational turnover,” he said, “just a really incredible opportunity to rethink everything. And to take a fresh look, to be data-centric, to be very transparent and embrace the role as the state’s Chief Financial Officer.”
Billed as “Missouri State Treasurer Eric Schmitt's one-stop shop for Missouri economic data and trends,” the website offers frank, easy-to-follow numbers and percentages comparing the state with the nation based on the most current statistics. For the more deeply curious, a link takes the user to a page with definitions and citations for all the information.
The state, visitors learn, is likely doing better than the nation in unemployment rates; in July, Missouri unemployment stood at 3.8 percent compared to 4.4 percent for the nation in August.
In exports, using 2016 data, Missouri contributed $14 billion to the nation’s $2.2 trillion in goods sent elsewhere. That’s 4.6 percent of the state’s gross domestic product compared to 12 percent for the nation.
But beyond mere numbers and cites, Schmitt said that officials plan to update the page regularly — pointing to their most recent tweak, charting the rise of the national debt to $20.2 trillion. Missouri “debt clock” rankings are highlighted in red and inform viewers that it amounts to $62,402 for each of the state’s nearly 6.1 million citizens.
The state’s debt, Schmitt pointed out — stoked largely by unfunded pension liability — is there too: $18.4 billion or $3,027 per resident.
Officials talked to economists, bankers, residents and business owners to learn what data streams they’d like to see on the website, the treasurer told Government Technology, and realized that they were looking for a picture of what’s happening in Missouri and how that compares to the U.S.
But, Schmitt noted, the dashboard goes further, animating county-by-county explorations of the jurisdictions with the highest education savings, percentages of people below the poverty line, unemployment and hourly wages paid.
“If you look at these in their totality and lay these maps on top of one other, they start to tell a story. And that’s really compelling because in a vacuum, any one of these statistics can mean something but put together, it means a whole lot more,” Schmitt said, noting that the dashboard's creators are “pretty proud” of their achievement.
The site’s creation was an early priority for Schmitt, who said officials are open to adding different information if residents call for it. Powered by Tableau, the page was designed internally by a team of economists and government accounting experts, with costs the treasurer described as “very minimal.”
“And we hope that this can lead to some big, broad discussions that can save taxpayers a lot of money and make government more efficient and more responsive to taxpayers,” Schmitt added.
At the local level, Kansas City, Mo.’s dashboard — called KCStat, which debuted in October 2013 — has helped the municipality monitor goals, identify needed focus areas and resources to achieve outcomes, and “circle our wagons” around “established priorities,” said Kate Bender, deputy performance officer in the City Manager's Office, via email.
She noted that areas of progress achieved via KCStat include the city’s decision to spend money, eliminating “the backlog of dangerous and abandoned buildings,” and to realize an $800 million GO bond authorization for infrastructure. That effort, she pointed out, was “founded on resident perception and asset condition as discussed in KCStat.”
As for advice to creators of the Missouri dashboard, Bender said she thinks that "it's important on a public-facing dashboard to frame the issues in terms of public perception; residents may not understand the ins and outs of bureaucracy or programs but they understand the outcomes side.”
She added that it’s crucial to place data in context to better inform residents, to keep in mind the process needed to gather data and support the dashboard — and to consider automation as an alternative to depending on staff time to maintain the website.
Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, which shepherded the Massachusetts’ Technology, Talent and Economic Reporting System (MATTERS) dashboard to its debut in February 2015, told Government Technology that the council's website appears to have a different goal from the Missouri dashboard.
The Missouri dashboard, Anderson said, “looks more like a thermometer” with its emphasis on comparing the state nationally and on a county-to-county level. MATTERS, he said, was designed as a competitive tool to show Massachusetts its “relative strengths and competitive weaknesses in the context of other states, especially peer states.”
The council is an advocacy group for the state’s technology industry, firms that support it, and the research community.
In fact, that comparative focus of MATTERS is one of two suggestions the council president made as potential directions for the dashboard.
“The two things that we’ve done are, we’ve made the site dynamic so that you can trend changes as data changes," Anderson said, "and we happen to like the 50-state comparative aspect that allows the user to slice certain data sets with certain states of interest."