The Key Individuals for a Successful Digital Performance Initiative

December 15, 2015 7:00 am PST | Data as a Service, Effective Governing

One of the more challenging aspects of working in the oversight community is being stonewalled from data that will given you insight into an agency’s performance. Agencies fear that oversight agencies will criticize the quality and reliability of their data, or (worse) that oversight agencies will use data for purposes other than the reasons an agency was collecting the data. These are common concerns that need a different perspective to make our governments more efficient and effective.

Accepting that all data are imperfect—like the humans that develop them—is a first cultural change that has to happen at both implementing and oversight agencies. Our collective goal should be to improve the quality of data over time. We are unlikely to achieve perfection but striving for it is a worthwhile endeavor. In addition, accepting that data can provide insight in amazing ways—especially when combined with other disparate data sets and almost always in ways the data developer did not anticipate—is a second cultural change that is critical for agencies. Rather than controlling access to data, let other creative end users find ways of adding value using your data because none of us can see all ends.

In presentations to regional government audit forums, I have encouraged auditors not to resort to easy-to-make but out-dated criticisms of the quality of open data as this focus does not take into consideration the realities of our new emerging digital governments. Instead I have recommended that auditors determine whether an open data program has established key internal controls to improve the quality of data over time. Specifically, auditors should evaluate whether an agency has designed internal controls to act on feedback from end users to improve the reliability, validity, and quality of data. This internal control should include a way to communicate information about data errors directly to a data owner who has the authority to evaluate and, as appropriate, act on the feedback to correct data in question. This is a fundamental internal control that all digital governments should have, and it means empowering your data owners to make decisions to correct and improve data when the feedback is actionable.

By looking for this type of feedback loop and ensuring that it is robust and actionable, auditors can reinforce the importance of developing high quality data in a manner that capitalizes on the potential open data initiatives create by encouraging an organization’s commitment to continuous improvement.

Where to Begin?

I was recently on a call with a Socrata customer who was developing their new Open Performance website. This customer had all the right foundations—a thoughtful strategic plan describing the outcomes the city wanted to achieve and links between outcomes and measurable performance indicators that would help city officials track the activities they were undertaking to improve the city’s outcomes. The next step was for the officials to begin working with city departments to obtain data to populate the performance indicators and publish those online. However, the officials were stuck trying to decide which of the performance indicators and city departments to prioritize. Their question for me was, “How should we decide which of the performance indicators we should start with?”

My answer was that rather than focusing on choosing the “best” performance measure as a place to begin their work, that the officials prioritize the city departments who had already expressed enthusiasm for this Open Performance initiative. “Who has been knocking at your door offering to help? Who, upon hearing about your initiative, immediately started talking about how good their data is and how they have been looking for a way to more easily track the performance of their program? Work with those people first because their enthusiasm will help you get a few quick wins because your project will stay at the top of their to do list. Save any recalcitrant departments for later once you have positive examples to show and peer pressure from other departments who have already gotten on board.” The city officials were genuinely excited about this approach. It was clear, understandable, and resonated with them right away. They did in fact have a range of department heads to work with and some were eager while others had reservations about the project.

We wrapped up the call quite quickly after that. This advice helped these customers to move from a space where they felt somewhat stuck and expecting that additional analysis would be needed to speeding them on their way to partnering with their first department.

Creating the Right Team to Support Digital Performance Initiatives

When most agency officials think about what are the requirements for a successful Open Data or Open Performance initiative, the first things that come to mind are things like data availability, overcoming technological challenges like aging systems, and whether a program already has performance indicators that can be used.

These issues tend to be the first things that come to mind, but as important as data and technology are, people are arguably even more important. Having the right team of individuals to move Open Data and Open Performance initiatives forward may well be the determining factor in whether an initiative will be successful or not. While leading GAO’s Government Data Sharing Community of Practice, I consistently heard that several types people are critical to a successful digital initiative.

  • Leadership: Having a directive from a top leader in the organization is often critical to moving these initiatives forward. For instance, cities that have a mayor who has decided that his or her administration will make governing decisions based on performance data will reduce discussions (and hand wringing) weighing the costs and benefits of an initiative. Instead staff will “get on board” with the executive’s visions and will move forward based on that vision.
  • Program Champion: Having program officials who understand and believe in the potential benefits of publicly tracking performance indicators of their program can address a myriad of issues that can paralyze an initiative. For instance, a Program Official who is on board with an initiative can speed access to data because they are generally the data owners. They can also be highly impactful in determining what goals and performance indicators should be tracked based on their subject matter expertise and awareness of what constituents want to know. Any Open Data or Open Performance initiative is likely to need one Program Champion for each main subject area or department that owns data to be used in the initiative.
  • Data Geek: Open Data and Open Performance initiatives take at least some dedicated time from an agency data geek to help coordinate data and technology issues. Finding a resident technologist who wants to take this on as a passion project ensures that the project will receive the time and attention needed from technology experts.
  • General Counsel: At some point in an Open Data and Open Performance process, most agencies will consult their legal teams to ensure that their decisions to publish data and performance indicators are sound and do not represent any legal risk. Finding a partner in General Counsel early in a project and collaborating with that person to document a process on how data and performance indicators will be approved for publication gives other agency officials a sense of security that they aren’t going it alone or wasting time on an effort that has not been approved or reviewed and therefore is at risk of getting stopped after they have already committed time and effort. These questions can stop initiatives in their tracks as many agency officials will not view investing time in an activity that could get caught up in legal wrangling as time well spend. Collaborating early on with Counsel can smooth this process.

Making sure that these key individuals are part of your Open Data or Open Performance team can help to ensure a successful and timely roll out just as much as finding the right data for your performance metrics.


Learn more about Socrata Open Performance, which utilizes performance metrics based on real, up-to-date data for governments of all sizes.

Find out about Socrata Open Performance


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