Data-driven Government: The use of data (aka Facts, Information, Insights, etc.) to support all Decisions, Policies, Performance Metrics, etc. required in the daily & long-term operation of Government (at all levels).
Oxymoron: A rhetorical figure of speech in which markedly contradictory terms appear in conjunction so as to emphasize the statement ; gen. a contradiction in terms.
The notion of Data-driven Government presumes to solve the age-old challenge of balancing “head vs. heart”(1) when it comes to decision making and associated activities in Government bodies. Data-driven Government creates a culture where decision making & behavioral outcomes rely on Data (aka Facts) to drive each and every aspect of day-to-day operations as well as the long-term strategic goals. The concept is not new at all and dates back many decades now, but has had limited success in Government until recently. The Data-driven approach has been brought to the forefront again as Government’s everywhere jump on the Data, Analytics & Digital bandwagons and proceed to Transform themselves into more agile and efficient bodies which can better serve the needs of its citizens, at substantially lower costs. It is clearly an ideology that has caught on in the numerous Digital Transformation Programs that we see around the world (UK-GDS, US-18F, Australia-DTO, EU-SDM, etc.) and has an almost religious zeal to it in respect to how Politicians and Mandarins characterize it in their advocacy activities (much less those who are actively involved in its delivery). However, beyond the rhetoric is the fundamental question; Is Data-driven Government an Oxymoron or a Reality? I will endeavor to answer this in the rest of my article.
Government (as a service and not quite yet a platform) has become increasingly complex to deliver effectively given the growing demands of daily operations and the increased sophistication & demands of Citizens in terms of their expectations from their Government. At the heart of this is a growing awareness, much less recognition, that Government is more and more like a business which now must compete for Customers in a highly crowded field of competitors. While this may strike some as odd, it is clear to most strategists that Government must keep up with advances in Decision Science used by the Commercial Sector in order to survive (at the polls at least).
To become a truly data-driven Government (and not cynically wear it as a fashion statement) the culture of decision making & performance management must change dramatically. This transformation begins at the very top of Government with the elected Officials who are accountable (with their Civil Service partners) for formulating and executing strategy and defining the associated tactics required to achieve the desired outcomes. These Officials must change their spots from being political hacks who use their power to force outcomes, to those who achieve outcomes by leveraging facts & measures. This approach must then cascade down to all levels of Government (Elected representatives & Civil Service) while remaining aligned along this path. The secret sauce in this approach will be balancing the political agenda of elected officials with the needs of citizens. Data-driven Government provides levels of transparency not currently found today even in the most progressive Open Data programs. The data used to drive these decisions must pass scrutiny by oversight bodies, opposing parties and citizens themselves. This leaves little wiggle room for political agendas to be fulfilled using smoke filled backrooms as a proxy for decision science.
Data-driven Government is a rationale that the Open Data community uses in their advocacy activities to justify further adoption and investments. They speak of “dog fooding” by Governments’ in respect to using their own Open Data to drive outcomes as well as enhancing Transparency. I believe that Open Data remains a PR tool for use by governments to control information outflows and to act as a proxy for transparency that comes from Freedom of Information laws. These efforts typify the fact that political power is hard to give up willingly by elected officials, but given the awareness of citizens to these tactics it will not be long before they are non viable.
In the end, will Governments’ have the political willpower to become truly data-driven or will they continue to embrace the politics of cynicism, power and cronyism? It remains to be seen, but strong seeds of change have already been planted and if supported by strong nurturing (via the electorate), plenty of sunshine (transparency) and nutrients (budget) it can and will become a reality.
(1) – The Head (cognitive) is all the rich data & insights that Governments accumulate and the Heart (emotional) being Politics/Human Behavior at its basest.
Note: This posting appears in an edited form in the January 2016 issue of Information Age magazine (www.information-age.com).