3 Tips for Data-Driven Governing from the Department of Commerce

April 7, 2016 12:33 pm PST | Effective Governing

When President Obama issued the Transparency and Open Government executive memo on his first day in office, he set forth the expectation that the federal government should be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. The Department of Commerce was one of the first agencies to create a specific open government plan, one of the first to hire a Chief Data Officer to enact it, and is a leading partner in the Opportunity Project.

During the recent Socrata Digital Government Workshop, Mike Kruger, Deputy Director of Public Affairs and Director of Digital Engagement for the Department of Commerce, joined us to share his perspective on open government and citizen engagement. Mike let us in on three key principles that helped the Department of Commerce become one of the leading federal data-driven agencies:

Tip 1: Demonstrate Strong Leadership

Even if you have significant levels of internal interest in data and an open-data approach, you need a champion at the top. This person needs to be a leader who will embrace the decision to become data-driven and foster those who can manage, empower, and in some cases enforce the policy. The Department of Commerce’s leadership did not just pay lip service to the Transparency and Open Government memorandum. They embraced the call to action, by creating a plan and identifying the right people to lead the initiative – this involved creating the first Office of Digital Engagement and hiring the Department’s first Chief Data Officer.

Tip 2: Tell an Engaging Story

Everyone loves a cool story, Kruger told the audience at the Digital Government Workshop. Based on his experiences, he told us that it’s important to make sure the project is clear and the findings of the project can be shared with others in a way that is meaningful. For example, the Department of Commerce started with data that told stories about their own operations. One of the projects was to identify trends in grant distribution that aren’t apparent without aggregating all of the grant data. The goal is to ensure that grants are distributed equally across all geographies. The data was pulled together to ensure that that certain geographic areas weren’t receiving an unbalanced portion of grant funding. Using this data, the agency is able to identify and consciously adjust to make their grant-making more fair and balanced for all Americans.

Tip 3: Don’t Create Work for the Sake of Work — Make It Useful

According to Kruger, the data needs to work to serve the needs of power users, but not add a lot more work to someone else’s job. While that may seem difficult, Kruger assures us that it’s possible. The sheer volume of data means that even though a lot of data will still reside in virtual warehouses, there will still be too many datasets for most agencies to leverage. In order to be most effective, datasets needs were prioritized by what value and utility they can offer citizens.  While serving internal constituents is a great byproduct, the Department of Commerce focused on citizen needs to drive their efforts. For example, the Department of Commerce is using data to help Alaska’s commercial fishermen locate their catch, and NOAA is using weather data to improve forecasting for crop insurance. The same mantra applies to running an open data program. Just because there are open source tools available, doesn’t make it the best choice. After the department explored open source options, they discovered that these tools would require significant staff time to build and maintain, nullifying the “free” price tag. As a result, they turned to Socrata for shortened time to value.

It has taken a mind-shift within some parts of the Department of Commerce to embrace open data. According to Kruger, “the bottom line was that we knew we needed to start using the information we were gathering to drive meaningful outcomes for citizens and deliver on our mission.”  

Explore how open data can serve your citizens in the Open Data Field Guide.

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