The Business of Defense

Where math, data and the PPBE meet: How one small business helps agencies get the most from their resources

The government shutdown is “a perfect example of where fragmented planning breaks down,” offered Dan Saaty. In a shutdown scenario, the federal spending plan literally falls off a cliff because far-flung priorities and needs immediately start to change if there’s not a continuing resolution.

The fretful scenario shows why agencies need to adopt a continuous planning framework that relies on automation to let the government keep adjusting its assumptions based on an everchanging set of facts and data, said the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Decision Lens.

Using such a framework, “I can build scenarios before the end of the fiscal year and then I can build scenarios after the end of the fiscal year that let me take into account what-ifs,” Saaty said during the American Society of Military Comptrollers’ The Business of Defense podcast on Federal News Network. “What if time changes? What if our budgets change? What if our priorities change? All of that can be done in a visual dynamic planning solution.”

Built on a family mathematical legacy

That need to be able to plan for what-ifs and make decisions in near real time informed by data, particularly within the Defense Department, is exactly why Saaty and his brother John founded Decision Lens in 2005.

The company focuses on what Saaty called the “messy side” of the planning and budgeting equation: gathering and making sense of data from disparate sources to let organizations collaboratively plan and then replan in near-real time to evaluate possible spending options.

“Decision Lens is really designed to help with the whole upfront part of the planning process — of capturing requirements, prioritizing and making resource allocation decisions,” he said.

Saaty recounted how he and his brother built the Decision Lens technology based on the analytic hierarchy process, a multicriteria decision-making theory developed by his mathematician father, Thomas Saaty.

“We took the mathematics that he had developed, and we developed and patented additional mathematics to help with the process of how you plan, prioritize and ultimately how you build resource allocation scenarios,” he said. “How do I allocate my budgets in a highly constrained fiscal environment?”

The approach relies on using algorithms and automation to connect the dots across data and to provide predictive analytics. In its earliest iteration, Decision Lens focused exclusively on the front end of the DoD Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) process.

Agencies today are beginning to see and embrace the value of such an approach, Saaty said. When the company started, most Defense planning processes were manual and spreadsheet-driven, he recalled.

“People couldn’t keep up with the data. They were presenting information to leaders that was no longer accurate or up to date,” Saaty said. “Leaders were making decisions. And then what would happen is they’d find out that all the data was wrong on which they’d made the decisions.”

Keeping people in the decision-making loop

ASMC CEO Rich Brady pointed out that data use within organizations seems to fall along a spectrum, from data-informed to data-driven. “I don’t know that Defense will ever get to the point where they’re data-driven, where they’re solely dependent on data to make decisions like high-frequency traders or something like that — but more on the data-informed side.”

Saaty said that’s OK and that there’s a misnomer in planning organizations that “data-driven” implies all they need is the data and then the decisions will just somehow happen.

“Actually, data doesn’t make decisions, people do,” he said. “And people, to make decisions, need to have a way to exercise their judgment and put data in context. So you really can’t eliminate people from the decision-making process.”

As much as artificial intelligence and machine learning help Decision Lens develop tools that can make increasingly smarter recommendations based on an agency’s own data, people remain an essential ingredient — combining judgement with data, Saaty said.

“If you have people and you provide those people with the right information, they can now discern how that information feeds their process. And so part of our collaborative prioritization is the ability to bring in subjective judgment and combine it with quantitative predictive data to get a true picture of the impact of the decisions that you’re making.”

To listen to the full discussion between Dan Saaty, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Decision Lens, and Rich Brady, CEO of ASMC, click the podcast play button below:

Discover other The Business of Defense podcasts here.

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