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Data, Analytics and Decision-Making: How Governments Can Manage Through Crisis

During the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local governments have been challenged in new ways to make life-and-death decisions and plan for an uncertain future

by Tableau Software / October 1, 2020
Data center. (Shutterstock) Shutterstock

The below article is an edited version of the interview between , Dawn Swainston, Tableau Software’s regional vice president for the public sector, and Steve Towns, deputy chief content officer for e.Republic, Inc.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local governments have been challenged in new ways to make life-and-death decisions and plan for an uncertain future. In this Government Technology Q&A, Dawn Swainston, Tableau Software’s regional vice president for the public sector, discusses the evolving role of data analytics and how government leaders can transform their culture to empower more informed decision-making at all levels.

What role is data playing in decision-making and shaping priorities in this challenging environment?

Data is at the core of every decision that’s being made within governments. Currently, it’s being used to make critical life-saving decisions — such as identifying hotspots, hospital capacity, available ventilators and more. From a long-term perspective, we’re seeing state and local governments leverage data to proactively plan and readjust their budgets based on the loss of revenues COVID-19 has caused across the board. When the virus hit, governments realized they needed data tools to help empower their business users with the right information to gain insights and take action quickly. Citizen transparency has also been critical — people want to know what to expect. To that end, some states are publishing COVID economic recovery dashboards to keep the public informed on plans for recovery. We’re seeing this urgent need right now to modernize how governments operate and use data to fuel their processes and influence how they will recover.

What are the most common challenges state and local governments face in using data effectively?

Governments have tremendous amounts of data from a wide variety of sources — whether it’s on prem, in the cloud, in Excel files or spatial files — the list goes on. Currently, citizens are engaging with government online at an increasing rate, and every digital transaction generates more data. The challenge is that business users can’t easily access the data they need, and that puts a dependency on IT to generate reports for them. This usually creates a manual, lengthy process with a ton of back and forth that’s inefficient for all involved. In addition, when you look at data in rows and columns, it doesn’t necessarily tell the right story. Are we seeing improvements? Are there outliers that are maybe going unnoticed?

How are analytics solutions evolving to help address these needs?

Modern analytics has really shifted. Historically, the role of analytics has been to build reports but now we’re seeing it enable self-sufficiency for data-driven decisions across an organization. Many of these processes are still manual, and they involve moving data from governed to ungoverned systems for analysis. This creates a new role for IT departments. So as organizations scale self-service analytics for a broader audience, IT must embrace governance as the guardrails to data and analytics explorations, rather than restricting access and causing bottlenecks. This demands operationalizing and automating processes alongside establishing a good balance of control and agility.

How can government leaders support this shift and empower decision-makers at all levels?

It’s a big effort. Orchestrating change requires executive advocacy, as well as alignment and participation from a broad set of cross-functional participants to ensure the needs of the organization are being met. Realizing the full value of the organization’s data means empowering everyone — not just a subset of people — to make decisions with it, in a way that is simple and intuitive for every user. You shouldn’t think about just giving people the right tools, but how to help them develop new skill sets, create new behaviors and encourage greater participation. You have to incorporate it into all the decision-making cycles to transform the impact to the organization at large. It takes baby steps. You’re not just deploying software. You’re driving organizational transformation by prioritizing facts over intuition, which is what we’ve used for many, many years.

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