4 Principles of Sharing Performance Data

December 8, 2015 9:00 am PST | Data as a Service, Effective Governing

One of my projects while at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was standing up GAO’s Government Data Sharing Community of Practice—a series of facilitated discussions with federal, state, and local government officials in which we discussed not only the challenges of data sharing but, more importantly, instances in which a participant found a solution to overcome one of the many barriers to sharing data. Although our discussions were focused on sharing data in general, many of the barriers and potential solutions discussed are highly relevant to openly publishing performance data. In fact, its fair to say the challenges with sharing data are heightened when that data speaks to performance—it’s risk on steroids.

For starters, let’s focus on the relationship between data sharing and open data. These two activities have much in common but one involves more risk that the other. When sharing data, an agency knows who the end user will be. Typically, it is another department within the agency or perhaps it involves an oversight agency like GAO or an Inspector General. In either case the data owner likely has a relatively clear understanding regarding the purposes for which the data will be used and will generally have an opportunity for ongoing dialogue with the data user to clarify any anomalies, define data fields, and discuss the limitations of the dataset. There are risks—auditors, for instance, do not always write the most flattering pieces about the agencies they auditing—but those risks are mitigated somewhat by having some clarity and certainty about the who the end user is and how they are likely to use the data.

Opening data publicly is much more intimidating for government agencies because of the uncertainty involved. Once data is published officials relinquish control over who the end user will be and how the data will be used. Furthermore, they may not have the opportunity to engage directly with an end user who has misinterpreted or misrepresented published data. When the data an agency is publishing provides insight into its performance—for instance, data that may reveal how quickly it is delivering services, what populations are receiving services, and indicators of whether such services are having their intended effect—the agency opens itself to a wide range of interpretations, insights, and criticism around issues that it may not have anticipated.

Making performance data open to the public is a courageous act by government officials who are so often on the safest ground by only taking actions that meet statutory requirements and are compliant with policy. Fortunately, the principle of creating transparent governments that are accountable to tax payers is becoming a cultural value among more and more agencies, and those agencies are doing more than they are required to communicate information about how they are meeting their mission in measurable ways.

Although agencies are prioritizing opening performance data to the public, it still requires cultural change within the organization as some officials will be faster adopters of the principle of open performance data sooner than others. In the discussions I led in GAO’s Government Data Sharing Community of Practice, several strategies came up repeatedly that offer insight into successfully effecting organizational change around digital governments.

  • Quick successes: Agency officials who are reluctant to open data are often reassured by their colleagues’ successes. When starting a new open performance initiative, those leading the initiative may be best served by identifying data that speaks to a performance issue that constituents care about, for which high quality data is available, and for which data can show a change in performance indicators over time. Starting with performance data that is relatively noncontroversial and that end users care about can result in the type of quick, positive results that can inspire more reluctant departments and agencies to open their performance data as well.
  • Data is imperfect so let’s improve it over time: Despite the best efforts of agency officials, most datasets are imperfect. They contain a range of errors, including data entry errors like simple typos or issues like empty data fields because some information was not collected. Quality in datasets varies, and agency officials are often concerned that data errors will be held against them. For agencies to be successful in moving toward a more transparent digital government, government officials in leadership positions need to set the tone with their data owners that perfection is not a necessary condition for opening data. Data imperfections will be accepted. An unwillingness to look for new opportunities to improve the data will not be. Making it clear to data owners that publishing data will not be an exercise in humiliating them, but rather it will be used as an opportunity to get assistance from the community in continuously improving the data.
  • Embrace receiving help from end users: Building on the previous best practice, agency officials should also clearly tell their staff that they want them to leverage feedback from end users by acting on input when end users find errors in the data. In one Government Data Sharing discussion, a colleague at an agency who was publishing geocoded data on national monuments shared an anecdote on a data entry error. Namely, after the data was published, an end user from the public let this colleague know that there appeared to be a monument in the Indian Ocean. The data error was quickly corrected, but, absent an interested end user who brought fresh eyes to explore the data, the error would not have been detected. Because officials at the agency walked into this project recognizing that their data probably had some imperfections and intended to leverage the help of their end users to improve the data, they had set the right tone internally to accept user feedback and act on it.
  • Placing value on the interests of end users: Government agencies do not always recognize the value the data they have will offer the public in part because they cannot anticipate the creative applications that the public will bring to their data. As a consequence, officials do not include among their own goals creating benefits to the public from publishing their data—goals like creating opportunity for economic development, helping the community to better understand their programs, and other benefits that cannot be anticipated. Agency leaders who ask their staff to value the benefits they will create by publishing performance-related data can change the way their staff think of their role and relationship to the citizens they serve. By creating a dialogue within an organization that values serving data clients (end users) as another way for the agency to create value for their constituents, officials can give their staff a powerful reason to support data initiatives even when it includes opening the riskiest of data—that related to its performance.

None of these best practices are easy or straight-forward to implement. There is no technical substitute or solution for changing culture. Having a concrete tool for publishing performance data so that agency data owners can see what they are working toward, and consistently repeating a dialogue about these core values will over time change the culture of a government agency to make it more open to opening its performance data.


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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