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Which Data Challenges Span Multiple Layers of Government?

Public servants who work with data in cities, counties and states have shared obstacles, including talent recruitment, converting complex ideas into simple language, synchronizing pilots with advance budgeting, and more.

Panelists discuss government data work at the CivStart Demo Day & Innovation Summit in February 2020.
Panelists discuss government data work at the CivStart Demo Day & Innovation Summit in February 2020.
Zack Quaintance / Government Technology
WASHINGTON, D.C. — As data work increasingly fans out across agencies at all levels of government, public servants who do the actual work are starting to identify a set of shared challenges.

IT and innovation department staffers, as well as technologists who work within agencies like health or public advocacy, are using datasets, analytics and evidence-driven governance techniques at an increasing rate in government. This isn’t a new revelation. What is, perhaps, less commonly acknowledged is that staffers doing this data work are facing a set of challenges that are the same or similar, whether they work in city hall, for a county agency, or within state government.

The cost of data visualization products is often a difficult barrier to overcome. That's a point agreed upon by John Katt — the director of technology, development and data for the Office of the Public Advocate in New York City — and Thalia Sirjue, the deputy chief of staff for the New Jersey Department of Health. Both Katt and Sirjue spoke Thursday at the CivStart Demo Day and Innovation Summit, a gov tech event hosted in the nation’s capital by Amazon Web Services.

In Katt’s role, he provides expertise with using data and tech to New York’s public advocate, a citywide official who essentially serves as a watchdog for the rest of New York City’s municipal government, which is the largest in the nation. 

One of the marquee tech and data projects during Katt’s time with the office has been using data from multiple sources to create a citywide landlord watchlist. Through this website, tenants in New York City can easily view problems with landlords, using tools that draw from data sets such as housing maintenance code violations related to providing poor heat or ignoring pest problems. Other data includes instances of landlords illegally trying to evict tenants or repeatedly taking tenants to court to try to get them out.

“By data, these landlords are not following the law and should be either removed or forced to follow the law and provide housing to these tenants,” Katt said at the event.

His job, he acknowledged, would perhaps be easier if the office could afford high-end data visualization software, but the barrier of cost to invest in that is so high, that the office instead finds workarounds that are often cheaper in the short term but ultimately more costly in the long run.

Sirjue, meanwhile, overseas the IT division of New Jersey’s health department, using data to help plan actions and policies for the state, a job that involves collecting data externally as well as from multiple agencies and other states. Sirjue agreed with Katt that cost is often a barrier for using industry-best data visualization software, drawing a direct connection between a problem Katt faces as a technologist with a municipal watchdog agency and a problem she faces as a technologist with a state-level health department.

That commonality isn't an isolated incidence. 

The inherent nature of budgeting creates a unique financial challenge for government technologists at all levels at well, at least relative to their colleagues in the private sector. Government budgeting is done considerably further in advance, which means that technologists who work with data-driven pilot projects must commit in advance to requests for funding. 

This is a challenge that Katie Gan faces as the deputy director for the Lab @ DC, a data-driven governance team within the office of the mayor of Washington, D.C. In that capacity, Gan is doing similar work to Katt and Sirjue, just for a city that also functions as its own county, state and school district, as well as the home of the federal government. Gan also spoke at the event, noting that it can be a challenge to commit to a pilot nine months in advance, needing as technologists do more data and sample sets to gauge whether something is or is not yielding the results developers intended. 

Other shared obstacles discussed by those at these different levels of government included recruiting qualified talent to government, finding existing talent already working within government, updating disparate legacy systems and converting the complex ideas they deal with daily into simple language that residents and other stakeholders can easily understand. 

Steve Mokrohisky is the county administrator for Lane County, Ore., and in that capacity he works on evidence-driven government for a western Oregon county that is roughly the size of Connecticut. Mokrohisky said that in terms of simplifying communications, his team works to really analyze industry-standard buzzwords, such as innovation and equity.

And those are buzzwords that — like many of the obstacles under discussion — are universal at different levels of government as well.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.