Performance Measurement Q&A with Steve Goldsmith

May 13, 2015 9:25 am PST | Data as a Service, Effective Governing

Beth Blauer, Director of Open Performance at Socrata, discusses the transformative potential of the open data movement with Steve Goldsmith, formerly a deputy mayor of New York City under Michael Bloomberg, and now a professor with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.


Predictive Analytics: a Fluke or the Future?

Blauer asks, “When I hear about predictive analytics, I always hear the story of Mike Flowers in New York City, predicting the next residential housing fire. Is Mike Flowers the unicorn, or is this really something within our grasp?”

“Mike Flowers was at least the first unicorn,” Goldsmith responds. Flowers, the founder of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, pioneered the use of open data to improve proactive decision making for vital government services, including building safety and disaster preparedness.

“He had a lot of skills and a portfolio that allowed him to do whatever he wants,” Goldsmith explains. At that stage in the open data movement, institutional standards didn’t exist for predictive analytics. “I think the New York model was good in its time, but it’s limited.” Goldsmith compares it to the current model in Chicago, helmed by the Windy City’s Chief Information Officer (CIO), Brenna Berman. “The mayor has set up a data analytics center for the purpose of making the Mike Flowers type of work more viral.”

How to Go Viral

Goldsmith believes when a CIO or Chief Data Officer (CDO) decides which issues need predictive analysis, opportunities for leveraging are limited. To go viral with open performance, he thinks government’s data experts need to engage agencies directly, learning what questions need answers to boost performance and make agency efforts more relevant to citizens’ lives. “Then you say, ‘Well, here’s some data we can use to solve those problems,’ and you create a viral effort in government.”

Budget realities in municipalities and states mean every agency may not get its own data expert. Goldsmith proposes a collaborative, cross-agency approach, starting with putting the elite data talent in the office of the CIO or CDO. “Then in every agency that has significant operating or policy effect, there’s somebody who cares about this issue.” Their expertise may be in policy rather than data, Goldsmith notes, “but they’re inquiring people, and they meet every month to talk about who’s doing what.” The atmosphere of shared enterprise and enthusiasm creates the viral effect, Goldsmith believes.

Open Government’s Biggest Barriers

Blauer next asks, “How do we get government to get out of the way of itself, without sacrificing on the privacy side?”

Goldsmith gives a two-fold answer. “One answer to your question,” he advises, “is to hire a good lawyer, because there’s lots of lawyers who will tell you what you can’t do.” Goldsmith emphasizes the value of solution-oriented legal counsel, explaining how internal squabbles about legality can stall important policy and manufacture unnecessary obstacles. Goldsmith declares, “There ought to be someone appointed to whoever’s leading the effort who is a problem-solving lawyer.”

Next, he addresses privacy. “They’re not very many of us who have very explicit data privacy protocols for their government.” Goldsmith lists some pertinent privacy subtopics: “Is there a forensic audit? Who has access to what sort of information? How long is it archived? When is it anonymized?” Goldsmith believes governments need to answer those questions clearly and transparently for all.

“There are two sides to data,” he asserts. He describes these as the power of data to reveal patterns and solve problems, versus the power to label citizens and activities unduly or unfairly. “Much of the work we can accomplish can be from anonymized data,” he asserts.

Open Data vs. Internal Transformation

Blauer asks Goldsmith whether the open data movement needs to focus on transparency for the public, or connecting systems internally to transform the way government delivers services.

Goldsmith suggests these efforts are complementary, and interdependent. “Many cities today look at social media as a way to tell the communities how cool they are,” but, “it’s not a method of learning,” he states. He highlights the value of the huge repositories of knowledge found in agency staff, government work crews in the field, and citizens out in their neighborhoods.

The open government movement isn’t about a particular technical effort or solution, Goldsmith believes, but about transformation. “It needs to be connected with whoever has the ultimate performance responsibility within that enterprise – maybe that’s the elected official,” he notes. Goldsmith calls out the energizing force of elected officials who get personally involved by attending meetings, and inquiring and brainstorming side-by-side with staff. “There’s no substitute for that.”


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