Public Agencies Use Business Analytics to Improve Performance and Boost Transparency

Virginia and Miami-Dade County are among agencies using analytics to improve services.

by / January 4, 2011
Nancy Roberts, senior adviser, Council on Virginia's Future. Photo by David Kidd Photo by David Kidd

Great things can happen when governments use data to make educated decisions and inform taxpayers in the process. This is the notion behind Virginia Performs, a website that serves as the public face of the state government’s performance leadership and accountability system. The site, launched in 2007, is a handy way for agencies to gauge their performance and also for citizens to examine Virginia as a whole.

“The agencies input their information — how they’re doing on particular objectives — then it’s reviewed by analysts in the Department of Planning and Budget, and then it goes live on the site,” said Nancy Roberts, senior adviser for the Council on Virginia’s Future. “So it provides the kind of transparency that leaders and citizens are able to see.”

Curious citizens can peruse the site for a treasure trove of facts, from infant mortality rates to air quality status to employment growth statistics. Virginia Performs pulls data from national and state sources to display by text, graph and map. Users can make regional comparisons in different categories or see how Virginia stacks up against other states. The system also has links to agency strategic plans. State decision-makers post their agencies’ performance targets to the site, allowing them to see how well internal plans and investments pan out.

Virginia Performs is a signature initiative of the council, which was established in 2003 by then-Gov. Mark Warner to be an advisory board to the governor and General Assembly. It took officials a while to create the right kind of performance and accountability tool, but eventually they launched the current website.

“It’s given DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] leadership the forum to communicate with program managers,” said Valerie Thomson,  director of administration at DEQ.

Virginia’s leaders use analytical information and the Internet as tools to simultaneously improve government business and public trust, a trend that’s not unique to one state or even one level of government. When the White House issued its March 2009 press release announcing Vivek Kundra’s appointment as federal CIO, it seemed that open analysis was the way of the future. The president himself said Kundra would “play a key role in making sure our government is running in the most secure, open and efficient way possible.” And in June 2009, Kundra unveiled the IT Dashboard, a site with data sets the public can view or download to track federal IT spending and performance.

The federal government made it clear that the intelligent application of data was the way to go. According to Massimiliano Claps, a Gartner research director, some local governments are on the same page. Jurisdictions can track spending and enhance reporting capabilities.

“The spectrum of the information to be analyzed is continually rising,” Claps said, “and certainly state governments are looking at more intelligent ways of using analytics and data warehousing technology to do that.”

Data on Capitol Hill

Business analytics takes an organization’s data on activities, tools, employees or attributes and uses it to influence organizational decisions. The private sector has been playing the business analytics game for a while now. According to Eric Sweden, senior enterprise architect at NASCIO, local governments can benefit from stepping onto the playing field.

Sweden said governments are relatively underinvested in analytics compared to the corporate world. But public-sector interest is growing. For three consecutive years, business intelligence and analytics applications have placed in the top 10 on NASCIO’s annual list of the most wanted technologies, applications and tools by state CIOs. The technology placed eighth for 2011, the most recent edition.

“Government has a great resource: all of these information assets. They’re collecting data all the time,” Sweden said. “The next step is: What do we do with it? We’ve got all this information. Let’s harvest it. Let’s get some value out of it.”

The tough economy may be driving more governments to consider broader use of analytics for decision-making. “I’m speaking from a state perspective, but I think it applies to local government as well. Look at the budgets across the states and look at the budget shortfalls,” said Sweden. “We’re going through an economic crisis. What services should demand more investment? What services are ineffective and should be eliminated, and what services should be sustained?”

Data dashboards and other decision-making tools created by analytics software can help policymakers understand the impact of their decisions. That packaging also makes it easier for the public to digest the information when, for transparency’s sake, it’s presented on sites like the federal government’s IT Dashboard. But Claps points out that the public benefit isn’t always so obvious when data goes open.

“We don’t see necessarily a lot of traction from the average joe taxpayer to go online and look at what the Department of the Interior or Department of State has spent in modernizing their content management system,” he said. “But there’s a positive effect nonetheless because what we’ve seen is, with the increased transparency, the various government executives feel that they can be held accountable for what they do. So they proactively fix critical and risky situations or try to tackle risk to improve the outcome of their investment.”

Analysis and Disclosure

Business intelligence technology brings two benefits to employees of Florida’s Miami-Dade County — they can create internal efficiency reports for themselves and publish related information online for the public.

The county had run basic reports with IBM technology since 1999 to assemble departmental data into statistics and figures, but as time passed, needs evolved.

Consequently Miami-Dade upgraded its analytics software in August 2009 to handle a greater data load with enhanced reporting and dashboarding capabilities. Currently more than 1,000 users from roughly 42 departments can consume standard reports or create custom reports for their own purposes.

“It makes data more visible to more people in a global fashion,” said Adrienne DiPrima, the county’s manager of mainframe technical support. “Rather than each person looking at their paycheck, a department can take a look and see averages and totals and things like that without having to request special reports.”

Web-accessible dashboards can show tables, graphs, charts and links to other reports — all in one place. Employees and their managers can view public reports or make private ones, and a browser-based interface lets them search through public reports. This allows people to analyze productivity, trends and other performance indicators.

“There are a lot of dashboards available that give people a quick picture of things, but I think the biggest thing for them is turnaround,” DiPrima said. “If they need to have something specialized, they can just go in and request it and do it themselves.”

The reporting capabilities also have generated a few data-driven reports for citizens. An Internet dashboard of inmate jail population statistics, for example, features a variety of data, including charts and graphs disclosing gender, age, race, and offense and charge breakdowns on current inmates. Miami-Dade updates the data daily, and Jaci Newmark, the county project lead for enterprise business intelligence architecture, said this comes in handy when the media wants figures.

“Every day The Miami Herald newspaper calls the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the jail population, so now they can go out there and take a look,” she said.

Predicting the Future

Ultimately Sweden predicts that citizens will demand access to more timely data from public agencies.

“As we move into the future, I think the public is going to want to see more in terms of, how is this performing right now?” he said. “So that’s going to require capabilities for dynamic or real-time reporting. It’s going to be very different from what we’re familiar with — like traditional, historical accounting statements, income statements, balance sheets, that type of thing.”

Sweden and Claps also expect predictive analytics to turn up more frequently in government, for example, using business intelligence to place personnel and allocate resources.

“Predictive analytics moves back a step further and says, ‘Well, if we do implement this service, let’s predict how it will perform. Let’s predict what communities are affected, what other policies are affected, what are the secondary effects,’” Sweden said. “And looking out on the time horizon — maybe five, 10, 15 years — to see what true impact will this have for long-term sustainability?’”

As of summer 2010, the Memphis (Tenn.) Police Department had reduced the city’s crime by 31 percent since 2006, which included a 15.4 percent reduction in violent crime, thanks to its predictive analytics deployment. The technology allows officers to evaluate incident patterns in the city and forecast where crimes are heavy. Analysts run data from the past 24 hours, 48 hours and 28 days constantly so precinct officers can adapt operations to changing data if necessary.

Crime analysis personnel mapped the data so officers on the ground could identify which areas needed the most attention and when. The police can decide where to dispatch law enforcement personnel and resources and how much to send, depending on how analysts interpret data.

Col. James Harvey, commander of the department’s Ridgeway Station, told Government Technology last summer that the “Memphis Police Department now has the invaluable insight all of our staff can use — from the commanders to the patrolling officers — to specifically focus investigative and patrol resources with the goal of preventing crime and making our neighborhoods safer.”

Sweden made a personal forecast about one area where he thinks predictive analytics could go in coming years: public policy. “For instance, as legislation is being evaluated, debated, researched — looking at outcomes,” he said. “What’s the real outcome of this legislation? Near-term, medium-term, long-term — what are the secondary effects of this legislation?”

Career Matchmaker

At least one state is using business analytics to help keep citizens employed.
New York debuted its Skills Matching and Referral Technology (SMART) 2010 job lead service in October 2009. The Web-based system is powered by software that compares skills on job seekers’ resumés with skills requested by businesses listed in the state job bank.

The system, managed by the New York Labor Department, uses semantic processing technology to evaluate text resumés, identify tags within them and then compares these with tags in job announcements to match job seekers and employers based on qualifications.

Job seekers get their results in e-mail alerts, which can yield some surprises, according to Melissa De Andres, who manages the IT unit of the state’s Division of Employment and Workforce Solutions.

“It’s really made to point people in new directions that they might not think about on their own,” she said. “The biggest piece of work that we’ve had to do from the staffing vantage point is to help customers better understand that.”

The SMART 2010 system is a staff-assisted tool, which means job seekers must go to one of the state’s One-Stop Career Centers and create electronic resumés to use it. Once they’re there, state staff helps them through the process. The Labor Department’s goal, however, is to eventually make it a completely self-service process.

“The types of jobs that people had before aren’t there, and they have to start really looking for other types of work that they could apply their skills to,” De Andres said.     

Job seekers can expect to receive an e-mail containing up to 10 employment matches from the job bank within 24 hours and every day thereafter. Since the system launched, more than 65,000 people have submitted resumés, and at least 16,000 of them have been hired for a job referred to them through it.

The Labor Department worked with Boston-based Burning Glass, a vendor of job-matching solutions, to create the resumé matching system. In the future, the state plans to incorporate the technology behind SMART with other state employment systems, like JobZone, a Web-based job search and career planning system accessible from home, and CareerZone, a similar platform for students.


Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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