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Building a Vibrant, Sustainable Government Data Culture


Lessons learned from the pandemic illustrate how governments can use data analytics and visualizations to reach better decisions in all aspects of their work. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the crucial role of data analytics. From the first response to the virus, through the vaccine rollout and plans for recovery, state and local governments have relied on data analytics and visualization to plan and manage activities, measure their progress and share information with the public.

For governments that didn’t already have a well-developed data culture, the pandemic also illuminated the importance of working toward that goal.

How the Pandemic Sparked Change

As the COVID-19 response began in spring 2020, governments were inundated with data about hospitalizations, test results, medical supplies and equipment, unemployment claims and a great deal more. Often, this data came from legacy systems that were not built to share information and didn’t store data in common formats.

Fortunately, some governments already had tools to merge their data and transform it into actionable intelligence in real time. Others acquired such tools. By leveraging dashboards, they gained information to support informed decisions through all phases of the pandemic.

Governments also learned the value of collaboration. Diverse agencies combined their data to build a holistic picture of the evolving situation. Some of those collaborations included stakeholders from outside the enterprise. For instance, to gain a common operating picture during the COVID-19 response, officials from Missouri’s 16 executive departments met in daily videoconferences that included partners from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a state hospital association, a state university and local public health departments.

Stakeholders who collaborated in this way often developed a new mindset about information. Instead of talking about “my data,” they started to refer to “our data.” In essence, government officials turned from data owners into data stewards.

Thanks to those initiatives, government leaders at all levels — from governors and mayors to supervisors on the frontlines — gained new respect for the power of data. Champions of data analytics and visualization hope this experience will pave the way for a vibrant government data culture in the future.

Tap the Will and Nurture the Skill

As governments work to harness the power of data, many participants soon gain a crucial insight: Stakeholders want to build a data culture, but many of them lack the necessary capabilities. Often, there are no incentives to develop those skills. If leaders want to spur change, governments first need to invest in education.

That effort doesn’t start with training in specific software tools. First, people throughout the enterprise need to learn the value of data in day-to-day business management.

In a true data culture, leaders devoted to operational excellence in different departments form a community for mutual support. Also, agency leaders share their performance measurement dashboards, working together to learn which management strategies worked best and which fell short. Lessons that emerge from those discussions can inform future planning and budgeting cycles.

While IT staff and department leaders might lead the data culture transformation, they should make sure employees at all levels learn to operate data intelligence tools so they can use them on the frontlines. Those with special expertise might hold office hours so others can come for help with their own projects. And, of course, people should lend informal help to one another as needed.

When many people throughout a government develop data analytics skills, they create a resilient community, lowering the risk that the data culture will fall apart just because a key expert leaves the organization.

Promote Data Literacy

While training government employees to turn data into insight, it’s also important to teach skills for interpreting the products of their work. Too often, people — in both government and the general public — think one magic number will provide the key to understanding a situation. For instance, they might assume this week’s COVID-19 test results sum up the state of the pandemic response, or this week’s unemployment figures define the state of the economy. But, of course, reality is much more complex than that. To understand how well a state or community is succeeding on any measure, people must learn how to read what dashboards tell them about numerous, interdependent factors.

Data literacy is especially important today when misinformation spreads so easily online. To show stakeholders the full picture, and thereby increase trust, some governments publish all the data sets that underlie their public dashboards. The goal is to show citizens and the news media the evidence that drives government decisions.

Toward a Sustainable Data Culture

As government leaders work to promote a data culture, several practices can help them toward that goal:

Show people how data can improve their own operations. For example, data champions might demonstrate how a public-facing dashboard could reduce the number of public records requests an agency fields, freeing employees to focus on other tasks.

Teach people at all levels to build their own dashboards. When people rely on experts to interpret their data, or when they’re given standard templates into which to pour data, they don’t value the results as much as when they invest their own time and effort. Working at their own pace, tailoring dashboards to their unique requirements and seeing their efforts succeed, these users learn firsthand how much value data analytics can produce. Ultimately, the experience changes the way they manage.

Set up learning networks. As people throughout the organization become proficient with analytics and visualization tools, they can help their peers reach a similar level.

Stress that a dashboard is not a report card. Even when you build a dashboard to measure performance, the goal isn’t to answer the question “Did we pass or fail?” In fact, the insight you gain from data analytics and visualization often isn’t an answer at all. Instead, the dashboard points to new questions, showing managers where to dig deeper before deciding how to proceed. Do these projects really merit more funding? What benefit would we gain if we added more staff to this agency? Why does this problem seem to increase around the first of each month?

As we continue to work toward full recovery from COVID-19, forward-looking governments are already applying lessons they’ve learned to develop a rich data culture that could transform the way they serve the public.

To learn more about how to build a data culture in government, view the panel discussion, “Leading with Data Analytics During the Pandemic, and Beyond.”