Best Practices for Data-Driven Agencies

Big Data Analytics

With initiatives like the Federal Data Strategy, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, and the President’s Management Agenda pushing agency use of data, a new study from the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton examines the best practices for agencies looking to use their data to drive better results.

The report, released June 27, details the different strategies that agencies have found successful for improving data usage in their organization, noting that it will take multiple approaches to maximize adoption.

A top-down strategy is key to setting the tone at organizations. The report pulls from the experience of the Department of Energy, which encourages personnel to report all safety incidents instead of keeping to themselves information which may make their organization look bad.

“We’ve gotten people more interested in reporting issues at their sites so we can avoid incidents in the future. They’re doing it for the benefit of others who might learn from it and they’re doing it without fear that they will be judged harshly,” said Josh Silverman, director of the Office of Environmental Protection and Environmental, Safety, and Health Reporting.

Agencies also need to take a bottom-up approach in enabling employees to use data to improve their work. The report emphasizes the need for bureau-level learning agendas, which list out the most important questions to answer. The report cites the Small Business Administration’s experience in implementing a learning agenda that drew from program staff, outside experts, and agency leadership.

“A learning agenda should reflect the priorities of senior leaders, consist of questions that research and evaluation offices can answer, and be relevant to staff in charge of administering programs so they might do so more effectively,” the report states.

The report notes that using data to evaluate the effectiveness of a program can offer opportunities to step in sooner to improve results. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services used early data to let doctors know they had high prescription rates for a potentially dangerous antipsychotic medication, leading them to reduce prescriptions. Agencies can start by gathering early feedback, and move to fix the problems identified by users.

Agencies don’t need to completely start from scratch – they can leverage existing data to make it actionable and easy to understand, like the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service creating interactive websites and data visualizations. Agencies will need to add new data, but may be able to work with other agencies to obtain it. The Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development worked together to identify how to increase student aid applications for students in public housing, using data from both departments to gain a full picture.

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