It's time for data-driven government

In one of the most ambitious public policy initiatives ever developed, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government was launched at the dawn of the Internet era in the early 1990s. It sought to create a public sector that had an entrepreneurial spirit and “works better and costs less.” President Bill Clinton named Vice President Al Gore to lead the partnership, which was comprised of hundreds of employees across the federal enterprise who detailed 1,250 specific actions to improve operations and service delivery.

But all that’s left of the effort today is an archived web page frozen in time on Jan. 19, 2001, at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Effective, results-driven governance is far too important to be relegated as a political fad of a bygone administration.

Today, the hottest trend in private business is analytics, or data-driven decision making. I have spent most of my career empowering private business to embrace analytics to make better decisions and to better serve customers. Unfortunately, government is not apace with technology. Had the reinventing government initiative continued, perhaps it would be routine for voters to make educated decisions based on their desired outcomes, using data as a guide and predictor.

Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, now leads a project to monitor outcomes in government programs. In a speech to the nation’s governors last month, he described the horrible task of trying to find data on government websites to demonstrate results. To counter that, he developed the website “USA Facts,” which hopes to inspire an informed debate on the purposes and functions of government by offering a “data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances, and government’s impact on society.” This non-profit; private sector approach could be the key to reinventing government on a continuous basis.

Anyone involved with information technology knows the Internet is underutilized by government as a modern public reporting tool. One need only look at our own state. Maryland uses a “Managing for Results” strategic planning process that relies on performance metrics in areas of economic development, fiscal and tax policy, and what are deemed “quality of life issues.” Sounds good, right? In practice, however, the reports generated by analysis of these metrics will likely be seen by few outside of government office buildings in Annapolis. Imagine taking this to the next level with statistical trends graphed according to government function and served up on your mobile device.

For example, parents might want to know what the government is doing to fight the opioid epidemic and which treatments actually work. The recently failed attempt to pass health care legislation in the U.S. Congress illustrates the staggering sums of public money at stake. A version of the failed bill included $45 billion to treat opioid addiction, which would have been largely distributed to states. Treatment options vary significantly. Knowing which approaches result in long-term recovery will help addicts avoid relapses and save lives.

Here is another example: Citizens in Baltimore might be interested in the success of the neighborhood improvements they pay for through a federal program called Community Development Block Grants. Launched during the Nixon administration in the 1970s, the annual $3 billion program funds nationwide infrastructure projects ranging from building new sidewalks to lead abatement in drinking water. Yet try finding a list of CDBG-funded projects in Baltimore. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development appears to have no such list one can access on the Internet, and it seems there are no standard public reporting requirements for local jurisdictions. In many cases, one has to sift through minutes of City Council meetings to determine what the projects are.

Uncovering the results of government spending and providing it in a user-friendly manner is a massive undertaking encompassing nearly 90,000 political jurisdictions. In the federal government alone, hundreds of departments and agencies administer funds for everything from job-training programs to public safety.

This is hard work. But we have to try as a previous president did and someone who knows a thing or two about information technology is doing now. While good governance might seem boring given our emotionally-charged politics, most will agree reinventing government must be a constant process. It’s the best way for the public sector to meet current and future challenges.

Jay Steinmetz is the CEO of Baltimore-based Barcoding Inc. His guest column will appear every other Sunday through October, He can be reached at jay.steinmetz@barcoding.com or on Twitter: @barcodeman.

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