Data-driven government should be bottom-up as much as top-down

There aren’t really words to describe how deeply the current coronavirus crisis has impacted daily life. Federal agencies, though insulated against the revenue challenges facing private sector enterprises, are no exception.

In the past few months, agencies have been truly tested as they work to keep missions moving  as they face the added challenges of implementing remote work policies and capabilities, become accustomed to more decentralized planning and decision making, and weigh the potential impacts the virus might have on their operations and workforce into the future.

The early reports of how agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Institutes of Health, Transportation Security Agency and Office of Management and Budget are reacting and shifting policies to adapt are inspiring – glimmers of positive news amid one of the darkest moments in recent memory. For example, OMB’s directive on resuming federal operations recognizes the “diversity of federal workforce missions, geographic locations and the needs of individuals” and enables greater flexibility in workforce management. I commend our public servants for their unfailing commitment and flexibility as our nation faces this invisible enemy together.

As the country settles into a new normal for the foreseeable future, with ongoing flare ups of the virus and resulting localized responses likely, using data to guide solutions will be critical to successfully minimizing disruptions. However, the way in which data is currently applied to federal missions is, with some exceptions, missing half the mark.

Frontline data access: A priority by equal measure

The federal government has put a premium on leveraging data for their missions since it became a core part of the President’s Management Agenda in 2018. Even before then though, the rapid proliferation of information technology in both the home and office had agency and industry leaders calling for increased use of data to derive insights that inform strategy and policy.

However, most data strategies have focused on desiloing data from across operating divisions, departments or verticals, or pushing data up in the organization towards senior leaders where strategic-level decisions are made. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and in fact delivering data to senior leadership is a critical part of creating a more data-driven government. This approach, however, has left a blind spot among frontline staff who have the most accessible opportunities to provide faster, better citizen service, more informed by the right level of data, when they need it most.

Carefully considered, strategic-level decisions made at the SES level have a far-reaching impact on mission success and readiness. But decisions made by operational staff and frontline managers engaged in the day-to-day running of the mission have volume — many smaller, quicker decisions that in aggregate are as important and impactful to mission success as far-reaching strategic ones.

By pushing data down and providing cross-siloed data visibility at the operational levels of missions, federal agencies can empower their workforces with greater autonomy and confidence, enabling them to triage and remediate problems on the spot without need for frustrating and time consuming escalations. This in turn translates to strengthened two-way communication and trust among customers, citizens and internal stakeholders. It creates a more positive citizen or customer experience and greater employee agency that ultimately means turning “let me put in that request” to “anything else I can do for you today?”

A case study: Fairfax County Public Works Department

This was the exact thought and approach Fairfax County Public Works Department had when they looked to undertake a cultural change by evolving decades-old processes. They engaged frontline staff upfront to get their input and demonstrated how the new process helps them do their jobs better. Ongoing training is reinforcing the change.

There are also different degrees of empowerment. Some frontline workers’ jobs aren’t changing significantly, but they are working more efficiently and effectively because they have access to better information faster. Fairfax County equipped their operations and maintenance workers with handheld devices to provide field-level access to infrastructure data like schematics, component information, prior maintenance data, and more. Combining this data with parameters for the type of work that can be conducted without a supervisor’s approval has enabled engineers to make decisions on the spot and relay progress in real-time to create compounding efficiencies that trickle up through the organization as fewer tickets get elevated or backlogged and maintenance is not postponed.

The system will manage the workflow and what actions are required by the municipality. Actions taken and repairs made will be captured in the system from the field as well. As a result, technicians will be able to service more equipment more effectively.

“The system turns data into information and knowledge,” said Juan Reyes, the department’s assistant director. “It’s more than just empowering; it’s adding to their capacity.”

Data empowerment as a force multiplier

And Fairfax County isn’t alone in this mentality or need. Across federal, state and local government agencies, similar applications and needs exist in call centers, for fleet maintenance, when managing geographically-dispersed workforces and myriad other external and internal functions. Indeed, a recent Harvard Business Review Research Report found that 86% of respondents say that frontline workers need better technology-enabled insight to be able to make better decisions and that when empowered to do so, 72% have increased productivity and 69% increased both customer and employee engagement and satisfaction.

Many agencies are on the right path towards becoming data-driven at a senior level. But this top-down approach only solves half the challenge. To truly become a data-driven organization, agencies must embrace a bottom-up approach as well.

Monica McEwen is the Vice President of Public Sector at ThoughtSpot.


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