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Information for Innovation

Data is nice, but information is better, faster, cheaper.


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Steve Goldsmith

Steve Goldsmith is a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was formerly the two-term mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor for operations for New York City.

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Commented September 24, 2009

Steve: I am glad we have learned since that ABC is a waste of time and that costs are not in the sca...

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Last week, Harvard Kennedy School through its Innovations in American Government Awards Program recognized a group of government programs for their contribution to the public good. The six award winners came from two states, two cities, one county and one school district. Topical areas spanned health, education, human services and the environment. But these creative programs had one thing in common: they all utilized data in creative ways.

As is often the case, these innovations took existing data and transformed it into actionable information, allowing public officials to deliver markedly better results.

These exciting accomplishments created, combined and/or sorted data in new ways that both produced innovative breakthroughs and helped in the evaluation.

When Indianapolis won an Innovation award in 1995 when I was mayor, the building block of the innovation was activity-based costing - a system that rolled up lots of existing data to determine the cost of a government activity. How much did it cost the city to fill a pothole, or to maintain a park? Without activity based costing, no one could answer that question. Once we changed the way we used existing data, we could make informed decisions about outsourcing. Boosting performance required not just taking on outputs and outcomes, but also understanding our costs.

The improved use of data was a theme that we saw over and over again among this year's award winners. Data that started in raw form, or was dispersed among different organizations, was thoughtfully manipulated to become useful information, taking data points gathered from many sources and bringing them together to enable breakthrough changes. Despite a wide variety of activities, this year's awards highlighted the importance of moving up the knowledge food chain.

1. A deeper understanding of the marketplace: Evaluations of job training programs generally show that such programs produce no lasting value. One of the reasons is that local government often trains employees for the jobs that used to be, not the jobs that could be. The city of Kingsport, Tennessee, in a wonderful collaborative effort among the city, business and higher education leaders, evaluated current and strategic job opportunities with a thorough data-based examination of the local labor market. The Higher Education Initiative revitalized a formerly depressed rustbelt region by improving the academic outcomes of its residents and adapting curricula to meet the workforce needs of the future in medical technology, health care and information technology. These industries in turn grew in the area.

2. Measuring progress at multiple units of analysis: The Chicago Public School District depends on disaggregating data not just on student performance, but also principals and teachers as it provides high caliber principals to lead historically underserved and underperforming urban schools. The New Leaders for New Schools program reports improved proficiency scores and higher high school graduation rates of students.

3. Understanding risk: Often government programs fund activities, with insufficient information about cost or outcomes. Wraparound Milwaukee reevaluated the outcomes the community desired - healthier outcomes for children with acute needs - and the costs of a fragmented approach to those needs. It then used data to understand and evaluate risks. The program leadership came to know so much about the youth and the costs of serving them that it could safely negotiate a new approach to become the country's first government-operated managed care program for emotionally disturbed youth.

4. Reducing transaction costs: The Commonwealth Healthcare Connector Authority of Massachusetts is the focus of the national health care debate with fervent critics and advocates, a debate which I sidestep here. However, I focus on its innovation in fashioning a mechanism - an exchange, a market - for small business to fund health care. Through the Commonwealth Choice program, small businesses can comparison shop and buy group insurance from a host of brand-name plans. This commercial insurance tool facilitates the market. The task of compiling, understanding and pricing various insurance costs exceeded the value of the information. The state helped reduce these barriers.

5. Using new information sources: Other Innovations winners demonstrate creative uses of technology to present new opportunities for government effectiveness. Idaho's Mapping Evapotranspiration program enhances the understanding of agricultural water usage in the state through the development of satellite technology. This information is integral to settling water demand conflicts and preserving wildlife habitats.

6. Open sourcing data: Accurate, real-time data is also a cornerstone of the District of Columbia's Data Feeds: Democratization of Government Data. Instead of producing edited, static reports detailing data that is outdated by press time, D.C.'s program is the first government initiative in the country to make virtually all current city government data available in real time, online and in its raw form. This raw data can then be transformed by members of the general public into useful information.

Anyone who relies exclusively on paper-based systems and mere guesses concerning performance or cost will miss opportunities for better, faster, cheaper solutions. With D.C. Apps and the Idaho mapping effort, we see increased collaborative use of information - gaining insights from the social networking of insightful information.

For these innovators, turning good data into better information produced breakthrough solutions. The method they used can unlock value, and innovations, throughout government.


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