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The Evolving Nature of State Data Work

States have emphasized data work more lately — but where do they go from here?

States' data work, supporting government operations and decision-making, has made a lot of progress — but a new report from Pew Charitable Trusts has identified some things they could be doing better.

Amber Ivey, a senior associate with Pew's Data as a Strategic Asset project, said the contents of the report were drawn from interviews with 355 government workers in budget, management and IT offices, as well as from members of other groups working with states on centralized data efforts. The report, dubbed How States Use Data to Inform Decisions, also contained feedback from stakeholders in policy areas such as Medicaid, child welfare and SNAP food assistance. Respondents came from all 50 states.

Going into the report, Ivey said the authors understood that for many years states traditionally collected data for compliance. So they set out to identify strategic uses of data by states, including policy responses to complex problems and resource management. They were able to find examples of that in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

They were also able to identify five ways that states could use the data their agencies collect more efficiently. They are:

  • Planning ahead to set up specific goals and structures.
  • Building a capacity for stakeholders to effectively use data.
  • Ensuring that quality data is made available to stakeholders — including public servants, as well as members of research and nonprofit groups.
  • Analyzing data for meaningful info.
  • Supporting ongoing data efforts.
“One of the things that we found interesting was that technology was not the number one challenge,” Ivey said. “The challenges that surfaced were skills, data accessibility, data quality and data sharing, because even if you have the best technology in the world, if you don’t have those four pieces in place it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to get to the point where you have data-informed decision making.”

Many states have gotten to that point, or are at least moving closer. Since Colorado appointed the first chief data officer back in 2009, these practices have evolved a great deal. In fact, 18 states and Washington, D.C., have created a CDO position, or a similar role, through laws, executive orders, appointments within agencies or other means.

North Carolina has had success fostering data-informed decision-making, as well as creating data-driven resources that improve the efficiency of state services such as law enforcement, healthcare, information exchange and fraud and compliance, said John Correllus, chief data officer for that state.

Correllus, like many state CDOs, is the first to have his position. He was appointed in spring 2016 after working on state data projects for years while holding other titles. In recent years, North Carolina has created an entire data division to focus on related initiatives throughout its state government. The division uses data to facilitate support, and to integrate and share data assets.

For other state governments that aren't as far along with data efforts, Correllus has advice that comes from his division's motto: “Start small and think enterprise.”

His division has also benefited from executive and legislative support, with the state legislature passing a law to give data work direction. Data-driven governance, Correllus said, first became a topic of interest in the state years ago after multiple high-profile murders brought to light the importance of law enforcement agencies sharing information.

From that grew the program Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Automated Data Services (CJLEADS), a secure and centralized database of up-to-date information about those involved with the state’s criminal justice system, one that all agencies could draw from as they work. Correllus described CJLEADS as a starting point for data work in his state. His department has taken lessons and best practices from it and spread them to other tasks and agencies.

“What we’re all trying to do in government — local or state — is we’re trying to leverage our data assets to improve services,” Correllus said. “We don’t want to be Big Brother.”

Andrew Laing, Vermont’s first chief data officer, has been in the role for about three months. He said much of the Pew report resonates with the situation and culture in Vermont.

“Vermont has a long history around some of these topics, and since the ‘90s has been using (a)  results-based accountability framework,” Laing said. “There are a bunch of different mandates around that in law, and how the agencies and departments in the state operate is very much toward having demonstrable evidence of progress and transparency of how things are going. This very much fits in that framework.”

Before becoming CDO, Laing worked for the state for five years, most recently as a systems engineer. He emphasized that a culture of data-driven governance must take hold in order to support and grow the work. And while he's bullish on the status of Vermont’s data work, he did note there are some notable tasks left for them, including designing things up front that are easier to access and impressing upon the public as well as other departments that strategic data work involves more than just security — it also involves evaluating whether they use the information they have as efficiently as possible.

As state data work has continued to evolve and more CDOs have taken on leadership of the work, an effort has coalesced to create a collaborative network among them, said Connecticut CDO Tyler Kleykamp. This effort dates back to work done by Liz Rowe of New Jersey and Ed Kelly of Texas back in 2015. It has evolved into a series of monthly calls, and Kleykamp and others are pushing to grow it further, hopefully to bring on philanthropic support a la the Civic Analytics Network, which serves in that same capacity for municipal CDOs.

“This group of us realizes this is just a really valuable thing,” Kleykamp said, “not only for us to share and learn from one another, but it looks like this is going to be a trend in other states. So, can we sort of professionalize the position and create a network, because most of us are the first person to do this. Who do you talk to? They don’t give you a manual, and there’s no person before you that you can ask what to do.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.