Interpreting Data Analytics and Communicating It to the Public

ARTICLE | Aug 22, 2013

I remember sweating through statistical analysis class in grad school. I held out until my final semester to take that required course. I wasn’t keen on the heavy emphasis of formulas and number crunching (back then, it really was crunching –punch cards running through large mainframe computers). I recall asking myself the proverbial question every student asks: “Will I ever use this stuff in the real world?”

My instructor’s response was that it wasn’t his goal to make us into data masters. Rather, it was to give us the knowledge to make sure we weren’t “snowed” by someone who presents (data) to you later in life. And he was right. Throughout my career in public administration, I have come in contact with a lot of data and analyses.  What was more challenging than simply interpreting it was packaging it for public consumption as a spokesperson for a municipal government.

Communicating data to citizens about a government action is a key element to help them gain an understanding of that action.  And let’s be honest, it has also been a political way to smooth over an action that affects the public. Not in a negative sense of “hiding behind the data,” but more of an apolitical explanation of an action as suggesting “the data speaks for itself.” 

Yet, while data is a key part of government policy making, particularly when it comes to a numbers game, such as budget preparation, it isn’t as much a part of government decision making.  Let me explain. While we are awash in data these days thanks to advancements in technology and automation (we can quantify just about everything), line employees and many managers don’t use the data they have in making day-to-day decisions. 

Making a decision using data means having to sit down and go through the data. This process suggests that incorporating data into daily work plans has not been practiced in government decision making on an institutional level. Governments have their data masters. Internally, we always knew who these people were.  Today, we call them Chief Data Officers. And data is accumulated and shared to internal agencies on a daily basis. Yet, the general mindset is to use that data for making policies where agencies can set aside the time to pore over spreadsheets of details and discuss its meaning as they plan and execute their programs and services.  And in noted cases, the data becomes a reactive mechanism when government is put on the defensive.

We have seen cases when a decision is made and the public (or media) asks questions that explicitly or implicitly refer to the data that contributed to that decision, the response from an agency or an official is “we can get you the data.” Again, this suggests that data is separate from the decision when it should form the foundation surrounding it.

It was suggested in another article by PTI executive director, Alan Shark that “local governments should establish a ‘data/information’ policy that begins with taking an inventory of what types of data a city or county has, how is it collected, stored, retrieved, and in what format.”  I suggest taking it a step further and adding to the policy that each employee receive instruction about how to access that data, understand how it impacts the agency’s programs, services and policies and how to use it in their daily work.

Government data should not be a hierarchy. It should be treated as the ubiquitous entity that it is. In this age of open government, government transparency and FOI requests, public institutions are learning if they do not effectively communicate and interpret their data to the citizenry, there is a good chance their citizens will do it for them.  

Unlike a business that can withhold certain data when it doesn’t suit their needs or their strategy, government must be open with data they possess.  And while we know data is still an imperfect science open to interpretation, and that access is more easily available and attainable by citizens, it is imperative for government officials to communicate it and interpret it, simultaneously, as part of the message, decision or policy that’s being announced. 










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