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Overhauling the public sector with analytics

Rachel Wheeler Archive

Especially considering the damper in productivity that the federal government saw in 2013 - first in the early part of the year with the sequester, then later with the shutdown fiasco that derailed Congress - public organizations have been hard-pressed to find the resources they need to continue operating effectively. Government officials are hard up for both money and manpower.

Given all the difficulties they face, there's a clear need for these offices to improve their efficiency. There's hope that through higher standards of data quality, they can do so. By gathering more precise information about the effectiveness of their operations, government organizations can fine-tune their practices.

According to ZDNet, such changes are already happening around the world. Government leaders globally are asking themselves and their staff members - what data do we need, and how can it help us? For example, local officials in Brazil are looking to sharpen their focus through data. Glaucia Alves Macedo, subsecretary of state for the city of Minas Gerais, worked with the Office of Strategic Priorities to gather more data about the municipal population and better understand her city's operations.

"I said to the Mayor: 'What would you say about this information?'" Macedo told the news source. "Minas in Numbers is not meant to be something that comes up with something unknown as the data is already available, but package it in a way that enables us to create a new perspective on things, to give the data a fresh look."

Revamping the public sector is always a daunting challenge, but government offices can make numerous improvements if they're willing to see the process through from beginning to end.

Finding a need
The first question local governments need to ask is a simple one: Where do they need to gain more insight? What areas are they curious about? One city may decide that it needs more data on students' literacy or graduation rates, for instance, so as to improve the public education system. Alternatively, the goal might be to improve the police department by keeping tabs on the crimes committed and arrests made in town. In any event, the first step in the process is to identify what data points are relevant.

Delivering data
The next step is for governments to get their hands on data. This can happen in a variety of ways - it may entail digging through census records, or applying pressure to public offices and having them gather information themselves. Sometimes, it might be a matter of polling citizens directly to find the truth about government programs and their effects.

Ensuring quality
Of course, all the information that government offices gather is useless if these entities aren't able to ensure high levels of data quality. When public officials set out to tackle analytical initiatives, they need to keep an eye out for impurities in their data - such problems might be the result of inefficient collection processes, technical malfunctions or simply human errors. For all of the above problems, public data scientists must have a solution ready.

Looking to the future
Data sets are always changing, so no public office should be content merely to collect information once and sit on it forever. For example, if you're collecting birth and death rates from a local ministry of health, these statistics are dynamic, as more people are being born and dying every day. Therefore, government offices must be willing to continually collect information and revise their data clusters.

Data quality is never a one-time concern. Rather, it is a constant pursuit for any office - public or private - that cares about tackling real problems with accurate information.