Steve Bennett, Ph.D., director of SAS’ Global Government Practice, is the former director of the National Biosurveillance Integration Center within the Department of Homeland Security.
The road ahead looks clear, but then your phone buzzes with a notice from your favorite GPS navigation app (mine is Waze) to go another direction. A new accident three miles ahead will double your commute time if you stay on your current route. Long revered by first-year computer science students everywhere, Dijkstra’s algorithm whirls into high gear in your mobile device, revealing a convoluted network of side streets and backroads — ordinarily much slower — as the now fastest way to reach your destination.
The idea that a mobile app could provide valuable real-time traffic information is still relatively new, as even just a decade ago drivers listened to the radio relying on personal road network knowledge and hoping for the best. Now, drivers are not only accustomed to route optimization at their fingertips, they have come to expect it as a way to optimize the use of their most valuable resource, time.
Optimization, of course, is not just improving our drive home. Rather, it’s a rich and storied discipline designed to use data and information to help us make decisions that produce an optimal (or nearly optimal) outcome. But government agencies have been much slower to use these approaches to increase efficiency and mission effectiveness, despite the fact that they collect more data than ever before. For these agencies, optimization solutions can take large amounts of data from different sources and provide agency decision makers with decision alternatives that optimally meet agency objectives.
Every government agency must work with constrained resources; time, money, people, equipment or likely a combination of all of these. Put simply, optimization can help agencies do the most with what they have, according to their own mission objectives. In today’s climate however, the reverse is true as well: when facing budget, personnel or equipment reductions, optimization approaches can help agencies identify where reduced resources will have the smallest impact on mission effectiveness.
There are a number of areas in which optimization can help, including:
Investigation or case prioritization, such as by Inspectors General, law enforcement officers or fraud inspectors. Prioritization of cases so that limited resources such as investigatory staff are best used, could help agencies tackle the cases most likely to be winnable in court, and most likely to recover maximum resources for an agency.
Finding the optimal routes for any agency that must physically navigate. Applicable domains can range from optimizing census worker in-person visits for the 2020 Census to postal package delivery, to checkpoint and military patrols.
Operational resource deployment. Understanding where to best deploy limited resources such as police officers and border patrol agents to maximize mission effectiveness can provide a critical measurable improvement for operational agencies.
Supply chain management. Military personnel, or any other operational entities relying on a supply chain can benefit from optimization, which can help ensure they have the right parts and equipment, when they need them, while controlling costs.
Government agencies are, by their nature, large enterprises that require large amounts of resources to operate. That scale, though, is ripe for improved efficiencies. IT organizations within agencies can provide much-needed leadership by helping business leaders understand and access optimization resources for their missions.
The power of optimization
Optimization, done right, can help agencies find and seize new opportunities, thoroughly assess alternatives and make the right choices. This involves three steps from an analytics perspective:
Clearly identify the mission objectives and measures that matter most to an agency, and how they relate to one another.
Identify the policies and programs (both existing, and possible or proposed) that can affect agency objective measures.
Quantitatively assess the degree to which those policies or programs will impact the objective measures alone or in combination.
Optimize the portfolio’s assortment of policies and procedures to maximize the desired outcome.
Using this process, government leaders can look at different scenarios to judge different outcomes. For example, they can investigate expected outcomes of dedicating different resources to various projects. This benefits long-term planning, allowing agency leaders to move resources to different priorities over time. Analytics can evaluate many alternative scenarios, quickly detect changes in volatile markets and make timely, optimal recommendations. And importantly, these approaches create the opportunity to learn new things that might fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which might provide significant benefit to the agency and its mission.
Agencies are always asked to do more and deliver more, with ever-increasing budget challenges. That is especially true with new administrations and new agency leadership that can change priorities and the way that resources are allocated. Optimization can help identify those opportunities to improve processes, policies and programs, at minimized costs.
The road ahead for optimization in government will be tricky, since the practical aspects of government decision making are more complex than the idealized process I’ve laid out here. But with the right analytics tools making the most of available data, agency leaders can make great improvements in applying information and evidence to their decision making, helping to both achieve agency goals and better steward limited resources.