Technology

Gathering and Publishing Agency Data

When Virginia’s Hampton Roads Transit launched its performance dashboard, officials had to figure out what data to post and how to get employees to embrace it.
by | June 8, 2010

Like a few cities publishing their own data on how well they function, Virginia's Hampton Roads Transit launched its Performance Dashboard this spring, sharing the transportation agency's key performance data in an effort to be more transparent and accountable. Philip Shucet, HRT's president and CEO, decided he wanted such a gauge for one simple reason: truth. "The thought of transparency in government is on everyone's mind," he says. "Leaders have a choice; they can talk about transparency, or they can be transparent. I choose the latter."

Upon deciding he wanted this tool, Shucet recruited David Sullivan, HRT's senior vice president of technology, to make the dashboard happen. It only took 82 days. "I considered it a quick implementation," Sullivan says, "and think most other CIOs would also consider this a quick implementation."

HRT Performance Dashboard

To make the dashboard a reality, Sullivan and his team first had to answer some questions: What data did the agency have? What data was meaningful? What was going to be displayed? What data would stakeholders -- which includes every HRT employee and anyone involved in funding -- need?

Shucet, Sullivan and the dashboard production team decided on five areas to track with their own "gauges": operating budget, construction projects, ridership, customer service and on-time performance. HRT has collected and reported most of the data the dashboard would display, so four of the five gauges were easy to set up. "Only the construction project gauge had to have serious data collection, validation and reporting developed," Sullivan says.

During the development phase, the HRT team accepted and overcame challenges that any government agency might face in trying to put their data online. The biggest difficulty was getting the organization into the mode of updating the data on an ongoing basis, Sullivan says. "We're still going through cultural change," he says, "trying to get our arms around showing the data and updating it frequently."

Currently, the dashboard's gauges are updated at different times throughout the month, depending on when the agency's policy board meets, for example, or when the various construction projects update. Some of the data is automatic, like the measurements that feed into the on-time performance gauge. "We just implemented a computer-aided dispatch automatic vehicle location system on 300 buses," Sullivan says, so HRT can track the on-time performance of its bus fleet out as its carrying passengers.

But some gauges still require people to gather information.The goal is to have data entered one time, in one place, Shucet says, "and pulled into the dashboard, so no manual entries are being made into the dashboard itself," he says.

Initially, there was a period of nervousness in which employees wondered what exactly having the dashboard meant, but Shucet says that it's a positive thing. He says he knows from previous experience that having this public, accessible dashboard incentivizes people positively to perform better.

"It's OK to have a problem; it's OK for a gauge to indicate that an area needs attention," he says. "It's not OK to ignore it, but the purpose of the dashboard isn't to be batting 1,000 all the time. It's to report performance in key areas as its occurring, and to be able to recognize good work where it's taking place. Or to, hopefully, avoid problems."

Thus far, the staff has reacted well, Shucet says. "There haven't been any excuses or attempts to hold back. The senior staff is a fine group of professionals and I'm very proud of how they've embraced the dashboard."

Sullivan agrees -- HRT staff members, he says, are proud of what they do despite the challenges they face and the somewhat negative perception that public transit often faces in the taxpayers' minds. "By displaying the data, regardless if it is good or bad," he says, "we show everyone that we are measuring and being accountable for what we deliver."

For some staff it has been additional work, but Sullivan says he thinks HRT has done a good job of talking about why it is important -- and people have embraced it. "The other day, I overhead one of our transportation superintendents asking about the details for the bus on-time performance data -- he wanted to understand how to get his numbers up," he says. "This is the kind of cultural change I was talking about."

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