Six Bumps on the Road to Successful Data Management

At the second annual Chicago Digital Government Summit this week, public-sector data experts shared common challenges that government should prepare for in creating and running data programs.

by / June 20, 2019

CHICAGO –– City, county and state technology leaders gathered in Chicago Wednesday for the second annual Chicago Digital Government Summit. Joined by a full complement of industry partners, attendees participated in sessions on topics like data management, artificial intelligence, FirstNet, cybersecurity and the future of government experience. On hand to kick off the day’s events was Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who admitted a historic lack of investment from the county in information technology.

She went on to point to examples of recent strategic moves away from customized IT systems toward commercial, off-the-shelf solutions. A couple of specific examples were the ERP system, now providing a single data source for a number of county departments; and the Integrated Justice Enterprise Service Bus, enabling data-sharing between multiple agencies, and features like automated text and call reminders for defendants about court dates. 

“Information Technology will help us achieve a more equitable and prosperous Cook County,” Preckwinkle said.

Chicago Chief Information Officer Danielle DuMerer also welcomed attendees in the morning, discussing her “people first, technology second” approach, with an emphasis on “meeting our residents where they are.” DuMerer’s philosophy is representative of an evolved technology leader that has a much more public-facing role, requiring new skills and a new view toward modern, customer-facing systems. The city focuses heavily on user research to determine whether residents are using city services, and more importantly, if they’re not, why not.

“Technology underpins all of this,” she said.

Setting up a successful data practice

Cook County’s inaugural Chief Data Officer Dessa Gypalo was joined by Evanston, Ill., Digital Services Specialist Hillary Beata for a morning session in which the two offered some best practices and lessons learned in getting their organizations’ data management efforts off the ground.

1. Change Management

Getting a new system off the ground, whether in the public or private sector, is much more complex than simply turning it on. Beata, with the city of Evanston for nearly three years, recommended thinking through the impacts of how a new data management system would impact  processes throughout the organization.

“It’s OK to go slow because you want to get it right the first time,” she said.

2. Timing

Gypalo suggests setting clear and realistic expectations for those likely to be impacted by a new system, cautioning against suggesting that changes in how an organization manages its data won’t be noticeable to users. “It’s a lie and everybody knows that,” she said. A better course is to adhere to the oft-used adage: under-promise and over-deliver. 

3. Security

A big potential problem area in working with data is neglecting to consider the security of both citizen and employee data. Gypalo relayed a situation that likely occurs frequently across government, well-intentioned employees looking to solve a problem, forwarding an email containing citizen information, inadvertently exposing their data. Establishing safeguards and controlling access to information are both important steps in the process.

“Baked into this has to be governance,” she said. “Who has access, at what level and why?”

4. Enterprise Process

It’s important to establish organizational standards for how to deal with data. Meeting stakeholders and figuring out how data is collected, used and stored across broad, diverse organizations can help lead to the most effective enterprise approach for the data team to rally behind. 

5. Organizational Culture

Data officers must work to overcome the fears of the workforce when it comes to data. Part of that comes from apprehensiveness about what data might reveal about organizational or departmental performance.

“Don’t use data as punitive,” Gypalo suggested.

In Evanston, Beata and her team worked with the Fire Department to create a dashboard that tracks a variety of metrics impacting operational performance –– things like maintenance issues for vehicles and equipment, inspections, employee absences and more. That successful project has created  opportunities to engage with other departments on data projects. 

6. Technology Advancement

Both Gypalo and Beata caution against chasing the latest buzzworthy tech. The burden is greater on public-sector organizations to responsibly invest in tools that can be scaled for other purposes. “Is it a sustainable tool? Can we build on it using other things?” Beata asked.

“As the public sector, we need to think about stability,” Gypalo said.

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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