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COMMENTARY | Eight tips from city and county agencies using dashboards to analyze data.
If there’s one resource that government has in spades, it’s data. But as any agency cursed with stacks of paper knows, piles of data are only as useful as the ability to process them.
Across industries, organizations are on average using less than half of their structured data to make decisions, according to an article in Harvard Business Review, and analysts spend most of their time finding and preparing data, rather than using it in meaningful ways.
How can government overcome these challenges and harness this valuable information to better serve residents? One solution common in the business sector is data dashboards. These software tools help capture, track, analyze, and visualize important key performance indicators and metrics. Dashboards let people see information in near real time, reducing or eliminating the wait for a daily, weekly, or monthly report. They can also be used to simultaneously visualize massive amounts of information pulled from different sources.
With dashboards, data is easier to digest, so agencies can see patterns, spot problems before they happen, and identify successes that could have gone unnoticed. In turn, people can make smarter, faster, more effective decisions.
Here are tips from city and county agencies that have developed dashboards to analyze data and are reaping the benefits.
1. Forget the data—for now.
Like a relationship with a beloved partner, data should help an agency be its best self. To do that, an agency should first identify its mission and goals of using the data, as well as what problems it’s trying to solve, rather than try to make sense of all the data first. After that critical step, those key performance indicators and metrics can be identified.
“It’s easy to think you should start with a data set to figure out what to measure,” said FUSE fellow Carlos Thomas, who is working in the Los Angeles County Child Support Services Department. One of Thomas’ objectives is to build a data dashboard for CSSD that makes information shareable and up-to-date for better decision making.
“But what a dashboard should measure starts with the question, ‘What is the goal of your organization?’” he said. “Next, identify what activities lead directly to accomplishing your mission. Keep drilling down from there. It’s essentially reverse engineering your strategic planning. What you measure should tie to your most important mission goals.”
Thomas gives an example from CSSD: If the goal is to optimize the ability to make child support payments for those mandated to pay child support, then the first question to ask might be how easy is it to pay child support. “Simple and yet complex,” he said. “We can’t make assumptions about payment behavior based on our own perspective.”
Instead, he suggests asking additional questions, such as whether there are certain times of the week, month, or year that CSSD has experienced increases or decreases in payments. After identifying those patterns, start to collect data elements related to that question and analyze those elements.
Another question might be how different money exchange mediums—online, traditional mail, Western Union, MoneyGram, Venmo, Zelle—are being used to make and collect payments. Again, the next step would be to collect and assess data elements related to those various payment channels.
2. Tools don’t have to be expensive.
A tool with all the bells and whistles, such as SAP BusinessObjects, might seem appealing, but it’s not essential to achieving good results. “The first thing I tell people is, ‘You don’t need fancy software,’” Thomas said. “Utilize the most user-friendly, easily accessible platform available to you. I recommend starting with free- to low-cost tools. You can play around to see which feels right for your needs.”
Thomas suggests checking out Microsoft Power BI. “It’s free in basic form and thoughtful about demystifying jargon,” he said. “If you like Power BI, the Guy in a Cube YouTube channel offers ways to learn straight from Microsoft insiders. This kind of free, user-friendly resource makes learning accessible.”
3. Consider sharing resources.
“Not all departments know what is hidden in their data or have access to an external consultant who can look at their data and build a scalable solution,” said FUSE alumnus Mohammad Mehryar, who helped the L.A. County Department of Public Health–Environmental Health increase its use of data analytics for strategy and operational efficiencies.
“What would it look like if the county had a team of 10 analytics experts, maybe under the Chief Information Office, who can partner with different agencies for short-term, cost-free discovery projects, just to look at their data, show them some of the capabilities they have, and present them some insights hidden in their data?” he said. “There is a real opportunity to look beyond individual dashboards to collective models for supporting data-driven decisions across agencies and departments.”
4. Show, don’t tell.
Priya Dey-Sarkar worked in oil and gas for 20 years before joining the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWB-NO), where as a FUSE fellow she focused on improving operations. Her old industry motto: “If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.”
Dey-Sarkar helped shift SWB-NO from manual to automated data entry and created dashboards, which allowed the agency to see the information in real time. One key to overcoming resistance to the idea? Showing—rather than telling—how a data dashboard could help. “We tried our best not to talk about it, but rather to show operators and managers that data is useful, not scary,” Dey-Sarkar said.
During major rain storms, for example, she would take her computer and work in the Emergency Operations Center. Managers would look at the real-time data she was analyzing, she said, and ask, “Wow, how do you do that?”
“Then I started hooking up my computer to show the dashboard on the big screen,” she said. “Soon people were asking, ‘Wait, can you do this? Can you do that?’ Using data spread organically to the point that it wasn’t optional any more. We needed it to function.”
Soon after starting his work with L.A. County’s Environmental Health agency, Mehryar realized that many of its employees didn’t have a frame of reference for using data dashboards. “We didn’t speak the same language,” he said. “People didn’t know what questions they could or should ask, or what they could do with one.”
So he built a rudimentary dashboard using the freeware Microsoft Power BI to show them various possibilities, such as a display of restaurants that had the most inspection violations over a certain period of time. The visualization also highlighted key information the agency was missing. “Bringing trends to their attention started new conversations,” Mehryar said. “People started asking, ‘Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?’ We found common ground. That’s when we could really start asking different questions, take new actions, and become advocates of what data dashboards could offer the agency.”
5. Don’t be afraid to start small.
A dashboard doesn’t have to include everything. “There is no one-size-fits-all,” said Mehryar. “Bigger is not inherently better. Don’t fall for the hype. For an organization that is putting everything on paper, Excel is a breakthrough.”
By starting small with his agency and building that rudimentary dashboard, Mehryar was able to develop alliances and advocates. With each win, he built momentum, which in turn allowed the project to scale up. It is now published and accessible to a group of users via Microsoft Power BI services. “Evaluate the level of maturity of that organization from a data analytics perspective. That’s how you can identify your first steps for what’s needed, and how a dashboard can help,” he said.
6. Prepare for traffic jams and roadblocks.
Nichelle Toomire, a business consultant, is working as a FUSE executive advisor with the L.A. County Department of Health Services (DHS) to improve its staffing practices. As part of that work, she helped develop a dynamic dashboard that serves as a tool for analyzing staffing resources.
Having worked in both the business and government sectors, Toomire knows firsthand that projects tend to progress more slowly in civic organizations. Permissions, sign offs, negotiations with unions, procurement — all typically take more time than planned. “In the private sector, it’s often as simple as, if you have the budget, you can purchase it,” Toomire said. “But in government, you need to plan for a series of hoops, and plot your time accordingly.”
Similarly, Thomas in CSSD advises that getting access to data may be more challenging than expected. “Data is power,” he said, “and people don’t like to relinquish their power.”
Building bridges with and between people is essential, he counsels. “You need to make a connection to the gatekeepers of the data,” Thomas said. “You want to build alliances, show people, ‘This is what we’re trying to do. This is how it positively impacts what you do, what the organization does.’ Building bridges to the gatekeepers of data is key.”
Toomire also flagged extra time for bringing in data sources. “Don’t be surprised if the data tends to be in multiple formats and inconsistent,” she said. For example, at DHS, one facility might use the term “Registered Nurse,” while another facility might use the term “RN Critical Care.” Toomire had to map the data before it could be used in the dashboard. “Plan for lots of extra time to clean data so it can be compared and used,” she said.
7. Sustainability requires training.
“Training is always an issue,” Thomas said. “If you’re in technology, you know what it’s like to build a tool and have it sit unused.” Engage with stakeholders upfront so they understand that training is inherent to the success of a dashboard, he advises. “You’ll avoid creating yet another thing we paid money for that doesn’t get used and implemented.”
Looking beyond CSSD, Thomas is working with colleagues at other L.A. County agencies who have also started the process of introducing data dashboards. “My hope is that we can build a consortium of sorts within L.A. County that can help permeate the skill set across other agencies, beyond workforce development or child support services,” he said.
8. Hang in there—it’s worth it.
At DHS, staffing decisions are made based on many factors, including high-level monthly and quarterly registry reports that track the number of hired outside contractors. Executives have to wait for these reports and then pull up separate reports on recruitment statistics, leaves of absence, productivity, census, and other relevant drivers of staffing decisions in order to determine staffing needs—an all around time-consuming process.
With the new dashboard, the registry data can be seen alongside the recruitment, leave of absence, productivity, and census data. “On the dashboard, access to the various data sources is instantaneous. Choose your month, your facility, what data you want to see, and view it,” Toomire said. “Instead of having to wait for the various reports, which are at varying levels of detail, not necessarily tied to one another, and require further analysis, you have it right in front of you whenever you want it.”
Dey-Sarkar joined SWB-NO during a time of profound crisis. A series of massive rain events had caused city destruction and eradicated public trust. Leadership was in mammoth transition. “Staff had serious questions about whether aging infrastructure had any potential to utilize new data practices,” she said.
But the team persevered. The agency scaled from 0 to 4000 data touch points in less than a year, and serious safety events reduced dramatically. “Data can make a difference between life and death,” Dey-Sarkar said. “It enables passionate, hard-working, expert public servants to make educated decisions quickly about where to allocate resources in an emergency. It removes human fallibility and manual error. It allows civil servants to serve residents to the best of their ability. And it enables the best from the talented people who dedicate their lives to making the places they live stronger and safer.”
Sara Hudson is a writer, researcher, and co-author of The Government Fix, how changemakers inside government are solving problems and innovating solutions to provide better services.
This story was produced by FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.