Growing Good in Government Initiative uses data-and-evidence-based approach to program design and performance

In developing policies and programs, federal officials need to integrate their constitutional and statutory underpinnings. And they need research and evidence on how the eventual program will perform, as well as what work might already have occurred at another agency. For how agencies can best do this, Federal News Network’s Eric White spoke with Beth Martin, a Digital Services Expert with the Office of Personnel Management and with Basil White, Senior Informaticist with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview Transcript: 

Basil White The Integrated Value Network, or even its a schematic of programs, plans, metrics, regulations and laws based on how they inherit authority from the US Constitution and move each other forward. So, for the IT folks, they might know this as a data schema of federal policy with the Constitution as its root node. So, flowing down the legislative branch to laws and regulations and policy on that branch, and then down the executive branch to executive orders and policy that supports those orders. So IVN is a new approach to data architecture and policy analysis, because we use a neural network to understand and communicate how those laws, regs, policy strategies, metrics, they all deliver business value to each other. And that visual representation looks like a bunch of nodes for each governance document. The arrows that show that movement of business value across them. So, the intent of this is to increase situational awareness about the structure and interdependency of policy, improve command and control, discover unknown stakeholders through connections we did know and improve visibility into that supply and demand and interdependency across requirements to deliver results to the citizen. So, we’re taking this approach to policy research now because two affordances. One is the Evidence Based Policymaking Act, which requires us to develop evidence-based research so that future policies, you know, emerge from standards of evidence-based practice and also the availability of neural network technology and relational databases. You know, the price of availability of that is shifted significantly.

Eric White What, you know, it probably should be, but the Constitution isn’t really referenced as much in our interviews as you would think, especially here at Federal News Network. Beth, what can you tell me about your role in this?

Beth Martin Well, I have been collaborating with Basil on this effort before he came to USDA for a number of years. Basil is one of my oldest friends, and I did a detail at our, I’m sorry, a rotation at the performance.gov at the Performance Improvement Center. I became aware of things like performance measures and metrics, and Basil had initiated this at his former agency, and we caught up over a cup of coffee and we knocked on a lot of doors. So, in the early stages I was a cheerleader. And as our efforts knocking on different agency doors, you know, we did proof of concept. We did one offs. We learned a lot along the way. And now that we have been collaborating with Jason Traquair at USDA and will Plant Health Inspection Service, my role has more solidified in terms of the overall product, which is the relational database. But looking at it using my lens and user experience, digital experience, customer experience, because yes, we are creating this platform, but no one ever says, wow, you have a really awesome database. What they’re interested in is what it can do for them, whether they’re a senior leader who needs to make a decision, and the information across these different priority areas that we have can help answer those questions. Or if someone is doing some analysis because there’s a decision that needs to be made at a lower level in terms of do we have all of the right people in the room? What are we missing? What is the universe of what we need to know?

Eric White We’re speaking with Basil White. He’s with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. And that you just heard from Beth Martin. She’s a digital services expert with the Office of Personnel Management. Basil, you talked a little bit about what this initiative looks to accomplish. What were some of the issues that it was trying to resolve? Were you running into roadblocks when it came to, you know, innovative concepts and all the good stuff that you just mentioned?

Basil White Well, originally it was it’s kind of hard to communicate the intent and what it is and how it works. I mean, it’s a very different way of understanding, communicating, recording the interactions of policy. So, people wondered, well, this this data is great, but what do we do with it? And so, it took a while to, you know, create some products that we could show people and then demonstrate that, you know, they were understanding, communicating, changing, leveraging policy based on a stronger foundation of evidence. So, you know, we made some changes. We’ve informed the creation of new training policies. We’ve supported updates to strategic plans. My prior agency, we used it for legislative ingest. So, when the PACT act or the omnibus bill comes out, we’re trying to figure out which leader needs to be pinned the rose to deliver this. We saved two weeks of work by walking it back to other things that aligned to those changes in the law that they already did. So, we gave them an evidence-based method of parsing out responsibilities for new legislation. At that point, it went from people saying, this is neat. What do we do with it to map all my stuff?

Eric White Beth, you said your main role was a cheerleader. What was some of the feedback that you got from some of the other senior leaders and, you know, data analysts that could potentially use this or utilize it?

Beth Martin Well, I, I learned how to work the system. And those lessons learned, we eventually incorporated into a really thorough standard operating procedure. So, one of the first things that I was doing was like, I need to learn what’s in Basil’s head, because he was the only one who had created this, along with some of his colleagues at his former agency. But I had to learn this process, and by doing that, it was giving me a picture of what’s involved. So, it’s like we need to do a brain dump. And once we did that, we were able to start to show people how it’s done for those who are interested and how to do the analyses from that effort. And, you know, to speak to your question with the senior leaders what they were able to get out of it. For example, when we did this proof of concept, we were making decisions around communications campaign, for example. And could we kill two birds with 3 or 4 stones? Could we get more bang for our buck if we combine efforts rather than just do one offs, we could do a larger comprehensive communications campaign. We could show how, you know, budget requests can be aligned because, you know, two offices might be doing the same work. And so, what are they responsible for? How do they stay in their own lane? And how can they justify asking for additional money because they have been asked to take on more work and they don’t have the additional budget? Things like that really show that once you wrap your arms around all of the obligations and requirements, you have a better understanding and can really speak to those things that are important for you. Because one of the things we don’t talk about is the work that you do, other people are dependent upon. And the work that other people do, you depend on them. So, there is a relationship, and you can better see that if we have a solid computer network, then we have uptime for the call centers, for example, and then we can provide good services to the citizens. So, there is an interrelationship and that can really be shown in a visualization as well as in the analysis.

Eric White So Basil, take me, you know, a couple of years from now, maybe if it’s out and Beth was trying to get inside your head and it sounds like there’s a lot of ideas spinning around on, where do you see this all going?

Basil White So there’s a few things that I would like to do that I think it’s capable of doing now and then a few things I think it will be capable of being able to do in the future. So, one of the things it is, is say you’re a government leader, okay. In the scheme of policy, you exist in your department as a nerve cluster of policy that you own, and you direct people, money and things and a set of policies to which you deliver value and another set of policies from which you receive value. So, it is a way to dynamically depict the role of a leader within their organization. Another thing that we talk about is, we’ve had a few examples of this, but not much is how we can use this to support resource requests. So, the anecdote that I heard from one of the leaders I worked for is she went up to her leader, and the leader asked everybody to provide their resource requests. She did for a brand-new office and said, these are my resource requests. This is my plan and my concept of operations. And here is how that plan aligns with the priorities of your office, the secretary, the President of the United States, the PACT Act, the, you know, and so on. And then and her boss looked around the room and asked her peers, where’s your power? Where’s your strategic alignment? How does your stuff deliver on what me and my boss wants? And, you know, then everyone else kind of gave the polar bear salute because they did not have that body of knowledge, that one, explained what they wanted to do and helped create the thing that she wanted to do. Another thing I’d like to take in the future is helping with grants. You know, we put out grants and, you know, people apply for the grants, and they hope that grant fits. And what we want. But behind that grant is an architecture of goals and requirements and priorities and metrics and that sort of thing. But we don’t bake that into the grant process, just like we don’t bake it into the policy process. But if we did that, we could help charitable organizations, or these applicants reverse engineer the scope of their proposal to deliver that value to plans and goals and objectives deliberately. So, there is a mindfulness that’s available to strategic communication and policy making. Due to applying this knowledge base. We’re also looking at AI. Basically, the steps to doing the research and development of the IVN is you find a bunch of policies. You have someone break them down into their deliverables. You take a pair of two policies, and you figure out how the deliverables move each other forward. Then you aggregate all of that into a list of recommendations. So based on how these things align we think you should do this for STRATCOM, this for implementation and this for policymaking. AI can assist in I think in all of those steps. AI could go and figure out, well, what source documents are missing, what’s not in the library, what are the alignments that we find? How do we break down a piece of policy into the deliverables? So, AI can also a lot of promise for all of those things. It might even get to a place where we have an AI searching all the government’s documents and making these connections themselves. And someone that’s in my role would basically just be validating the alignments that it found.

Eric White Beth, does this have the chance of making your job easier as well? And also, if you could tell me, you know, how do you if the manager is hearing this, or a government leader is hearing this and, you know, have has never heard of this before, how can they find out more information of utilizing this new tool?

Beth Martin Well, it’s not just a tool, but it’s an initiative. And I do want to give a shout out to the people at USDA who believed in this work. Through knocking on a lot of doors, we met some wonderful people like Paul Quimby and LaTanya Anderson at the Department of Interior. We were introduced to a wonderful group of thought leaders, and they introduced us to Jason Traquair. And over time, the Chief Data officer at Aphis took this on and set this up as a flagship effort to help Aphis and ultimately USDA. We have over 100 volunteers, including interns, beginning tomorrow, the 1st of February we’ll have a new opportunity for an intern cohort, and in a couple of months, we’ll have an opportunity for details, both of which are available through OPM’s open opportunities. But for folks who are interested, who are in the federal government or who are undergrad or graduate students, we would welcome them for their participation. Jason Traquair has a community of practice for program and project management, which has many thousands of people who are involved, and to be able to export that into the Growing Good in Government initiative, which is now something that ATARC has a public, private, along with academia. So, we have monthly working group meetings. Our next one is at the end of February, on February 27th. So, we would love for people to join us. We have a LinkedIn group, so there are lots of opportunities for people to learn more. And in fact, we’ll be giving another presentation in April at the University of Maryland’s Project Management Symposium. So, there are lots of opportunities to learn more and to get involved. We would love to be able to export this and see and help people learn more how it would be relevant in their innovation ecosystem.

Eric White While a lot on the horizon. Yes, please do send me that information. We would definitely love to post that along with this interview. Basil, I’ll give you the last word.

Basil White Thank you. So, the IVN is just one part of this larger, Growing, Good in Government initiative that’s led by my colleague Jason Traquair. We’re plugging that into this overall Growing Good in Government initiative to integrate it with maturing and evolving policy and program management, not just for the USDA, but to try to improve best practices, you know, improve the training, the body of knowledge that we use as federal program managers and policy makers, you know, project leads, that sort of thing. So, it is this is part of a much larger initiative and scheme for improving how we develop policies, plans, programs, budgets, all this stuff for greater ability and greater good.

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