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Bad Data Is at All Levels of Government

States are not the only ones to lack the data they need to make good government.

We recently wrote a piece about data quality in state government. After an expansive phone survey, it became abundantly clear that many states lack the data they need to make good decisions. Many others have they data they think they need -- only it's wrong.

Based on informal conversations with dozens of local government officials over the last year or so, it seems to us that data issues in cities and counties are easily as endemic as they are in states. What's more, since sufficient resources are a necessity to gather, validate and appropriately analyze data, smaller local governments face a much more difficult challenge.

The absence of sufficient reliable data to run a city or county well "is maddening to me," said Kip Memmot, director of audit services for the city and county of Denver. "I would put us frustratingly right where I see other cities. There's a lot of discussion and vision, but putting in [appropriate data systems] is expensive, it's not sexy and it may bring information that [officials] don't want."

Take Denver's Road Home, the city's ten year plan to end homelessness. It's a nice idea, but in nine years of work, including expanding its shelter system, providing better access to support services and building community awareness of the problem, the city hadn't kept any data on the success or failure of the project. "When you have these big, lofty public policy goals or initiatives, you have to set up the data immediately to measure progress," said Memmot.

Over the last months Denver has finally begun to collect and analyze meaningful data. While full results are not in yet, one thing has emerged, according to Memmot, "If the city had started setting up the objectives at year one, they'd see how hard it is to measure this stuff and realize the goal was not obtainable. We cannot eliminate homelessness."

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The need for better data on homelessness isn't a big revelation. Over three years ago, Denver brought in a high-priced consultant, who concluded that the city should collect better data. Three years later, the auditor's office said the same thing. And now city officials are rebranding the program. It's no longer about ending homelessness; it's about reducing it. Sadly, this is tougher now than it was ten years ago. When the program first started, there were relationships with the private sector to help fund the homelessness initiative. But, in large part because Denver couldn't demonstrate success, much of that money has dried up.

Similar examples of problems with city and county data have emerged, mostly because of audits, across the country. In Multnomah County, Ore., for instance, an audit on claims processing for the Mental Health and Addiction Services Division found errors and inconsistencies in the data as well as haphazard coding. It turned out the country couldn't protect itself against erroneous insurance claims. Even when paying invalid claims weren't a problem, the division couldn't evaluate its own work.

In Dallas, an audit on the security of weapons inventories and storage found that police department employees -- or even former employees -- could "add, delete and modify sensitive data." That's because it was easy to alter the Excel spreadsheets where the department kept the information with little trail of the original numbers.

Then there's Kansas City, where the auditor noted that the public had "become confused, frustrated and angry" when it realized that records showed that employees were labeling cases brought in through the 311, the city's central system for nonemergency municipal services, as closed, even though the problems had never been fixed. The audit found that departments had a variety of definitions for "closed". For some, closing a case meant verifying that the problem was fixed. For other departments, closed only meant someone had created a work order for an outside vender.

Better data won't fix all municipal problems. As Drummond Kahn, director of audit services for Portland, Ore., points out: "Good management requires good information ... but we've seen government audits where good management data may not have led to policy makers making the right decisions. It's not that more good data [necessarily] leads to a right decision."

We agree. But it's clear to us that better data sure optimizes the likelihood that officials can make good decisions. And at minimum, it helps the public determine whether policy choices were ever good ones in the first place.

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