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CIOs, Dashboards and the Cobbler’s-Children Syndrome

Many governments are embracing data analytics, both for public consumption and to guide their internal work. But there's one area that's missing out: IT departments' own operations.

Chief information officers across all levels of government are being asked to design and implement data-analytics mechanisms for their jurisdictions, and a critical aspect of these programs is the creation of "dashboards" that enable the public and decision-makers to visualize critical data and performance indicators. But there's one area of government that's getting little benefit from these programs: the CIOs' own operations.

In the last few years, we have seen a proliferation of dashboards, particularly across local governments. Consider Williamsburg, Va., where anyone can visualize how the city is meeting performance-outcome goals in areas such as economic vitality, tourism, public safety, environmental sustainability and citizen engagement.

While the goal of public-facing dashboards is primarily to increase transparency of operations and citizen engagement, CIOs are also working with their partners across agencies to build dashboards for government's internal use. These dashboards enable employees and managers to track programs and projects in real time, forecast future trends and visualize the impacts of alternative scenarios. Las Vegas, for example, collected data on gang activity in parks before and after the installation of lights. The new lights deterred gang activity in one park and moved it to another park that was not adequately lit.

Clearly dashboards have a lot to offer not only to the public but also to internal operations. But what we're seeing is a version of the syndrome of the cobbler's children who have no shoes. For the last few months, as part of a large study on designing performance metrics for information technology in the public sector, I have interviewed CIOs across the United States and Canada. These interviews have highlighted the persistence of that cobbler's children syndrome: Very few CIOs have actually built dashboards to measure the performance of their own IT units.

CIOs report various challenges when it comes to capturing the useful activity and performance associated with IT assets. While some of this is understandable -- what good would it do to report server uptime and number of threads processed? -- there is much work to be done here. CIOs should examine programs at some of the cities that are sharing IT performance-management data via their online portals. Austin, Texas, for example tracks key technology initiatives on its performance-management portal. Major IT projects are listed along with their budgets, number of full-time employees and performance measures.

Likewise, Minneapolis shows many of its IT infrastructure metrics on its dashboard in stoplight form, from systems' life expectancy to IT projects delivered on time and on budget. Minneapolis' metrics also highlight performance around goals such as how well IT services and operations are meeting the needs of customers and other departments.

In short, CIOs need to invest more effort in building dashboards to track critical projects and feedback from key stakeholders. Projects are the most common vehicle through which IT-related work is executed. While CIOs excel at tracking outcomes that are operational in nature, such as the number of transactions processed via an e-government portal, that only focuses on the utility perspective of IT. But IT is also a tool to enable process improvement and innovation; metrics on these aspects need to be captured as projects are executed. What percentage of government websites are mobile-ready? What percentage of administrative data is open and usable by the public?

IT investments represent a significant portion of public budgets. Increasing the level of transparency and engagement with IT assets and the ability to track their contributions is critical for building smart governance and intelligent communities.

A professor at Queensland University of Technology's QUT Business School
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