With all of the technology available today, it would seem that data-driven government would be the norm rather than the exception. However, it doesn’t appear that local governments are taking advantage of massive amounts of data they collect to operate as efficiently and as effectively as possible–at least not in Massachusetts, according to Michael Ward, director of municipal services at the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston.
Ward points to public works agencies in the state to prove his point. “Elected officials and the public want to know about the effectiveness and efficiency of their public works operations,” he says. “How well are they performing?” The problem is that in many public works departments in Massachusetts, the question is fundamentally unanswerable.
A public works department has to know how much work it’s completing to determine how well it’s operating. Yet, the majority of public works departments in the state don’t comprehensively track the work they do, he says.
Part of the reason is that many departments don’t even have automated work order systems, relying instead on Post-It notes and printed-out emails to assign work. Others agencies have work order systems that aren’t being used properly, he says. The result is that they don’t have the information that’s useful for reporting or to make the best business decisions.
And municipalities that do have the data, don’t analyze it to make management decisions, because few public works departments have the staff with the skills and the time to analyze data regularly and act on it, Ward says.
“Ironically, if these departments could use data to tell their stories, those stories would often be about how the departments are now doing more work than they were 10 years ago with fewer staff than they had then,” he notes. “And they’re doing that work with old and deteriorating vehicles and equipment.”
Other local agencies are also suffering from this lack of foundational data, he says. For example, many police departments are unable to determine whether their officers are issuing citations at the times of day and places with the highest numbers of accidents.
That’s because many departments haven’t exported the data on accidents, as well as the data on citations, to the same maps so they can compare the information, according to Ward.
For the past three years, the Government Analytics Program (GAP) at the Collins Center has been helping municipalities and other government agencies in Massachusetts to use data to answer foundational questions and to change their cultures to become more data-driven.
GAP trains the staff members of the various departments so they can understand and use data and data analysis techniques to “give municipalities a sense of the value of being data-driven in an affordable way,” he says.