The Ripon Forum

Volume 51, No. 5

November 2017

Data-Driven Government

By on November 13, 2017

How states are tapping emerging technologies to drive efficiency and improve performance


America’s governors and the states they run are using evidence-based techniques such as big data, business intelligence, cloud platforms, and predictive analysis to solve public policy problems.

What were once primarily used by Fortune 500 companies and innovative start-ups are now being adopted by state governments. It’s all part of an increased drive to modernize agency operations, realize efficiencies and improve customer service for state residents.

Data is at the center of many states’ efforts to foster more informed policy decisions. For example, Mississippi LifeTracks is an interoperable, statewide information system designed to spur data-driven solutions to better match education choices with career-readiness and economic development outcomes. Extensive information has been made publicly accessible online, facilitating researchers’ efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of abstinence programs or look into the labor market effects of a particular math and science magnet school.

Rhode Island is taking a similar approach to the opioid crisis with a new web-based overdose-prevention dashboard. A website itself may not sound revolutionary, but the amount of timely, local data offered and the site’s ability to connect users to resources within their communities make it a standout. A mobile version is in development and will soon put a wealth of important information in the pockets of any Rhode Islander with a smartphone – key for times when immediate action can save a life.

Data is at the center of many states’ efforts to foster more informed policy decisions.

Also using data to combat the opioid epidemic, Ohio has upgraded its prescription drug monitoring program to include scoring to calculate a patient’s risk of addiction and overdose. Governors are directing their state governments to look to systems like these to identify drug-seeking behavior and pill mills, as well as link individuals with treatment.

In case study after case study, words like “link” and “connect” dominate, as state policymakers work to address citizens’ frustrations with the complexity and inaccessibility of their government. Enabling cross-agency and interdepartmental cooperation are key goals to reduce redundancies and waste and facilitate integrated service delivery.

Perhaps most ambitious is the recently unveiled Maryland MD THINK project. This initiative, which earned the state a grant of nearly $200 million, uses a scalable, cloud-based data analytics platform to streamline government operations and increase agency productivity. Caseworkers are provided tablet devices to provide service in the field. Still in phase one, MD THINK is currently focused on sharing information among child welfare and juvenile services programs, where there is significant overlap in target audiences, but broader implementation is planned.

In some of the most exciting cases, new technologies are being paired with new workplace methods. For instance, the Virginia Datathon unleashed Silicon Valley–style creativity from teams from various state agencies. Charged with creating apps to use state data as they saw fit, there were few limits on the teams’ originality. Dozens of helpful results emerged, ranging from telemedicine solutions and mobile tax-payment applications to community crime maps and on-demand training offerings.

Perhaps most ambitious is the recently unveiled Maryland MD THINK project, which uses a scalable, cloud-based data analytics platform to streamline government operations and increase agency productivity.

As states undertake enterprise technology projects, they are also facing the same challenges as their corporate counterparts. Security and privacy must remain top of mind. MD THINK, for instance, has role-based data access to enable staff members to obtain the information they need, while preventing the sharing of unnecessary personal details. Privacy concerns may limit adoption of similar technologies at the federal level, where citizens could be more squeamish about the Big Brother–type amalgamation of their information.

Policymakers will also need to be cognizant of the pitfalls of predictive analytics. Governors seek top-quality data. Poor-quality data can skew insights gleaned from business intelligence and neural networking systems in unexpected ways. For example, crime-forecasting technologies have empowered local law enforcement to allocate resources to high-risk areas identified by software. Some communities have, however, expressed concerns about the use of historical data exacerbating racially biased policing.

States are experiencing a significant level of success navigating these and other issues as they apply emerging technologies to diverse challenges. The results indicate that modernization holds great promise for driving efficiency and cost-savings while improving performance and productivity. In particular, data-focused initiatives have enhanced results-tracking and enabled agencies to better monitor and achieve the outcomes intended for their programs.

Confidence in our federal government is still hovering near historic lows, according to the Pew Research Center. It’s high time national leaders look to the states for how to apply technologies to increase government effectiveness and regain the trust of the American people. After all, recent surveys indicate a higher level of trust for governors, who are already making impressive strides by tackling tough policy problems with developing technologies.

Scott Pattison is the executive director and CEO of the National Governors Association, the collective voice of the 55 governors of America’s states, commonwealths and territories.

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