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Jun 2018 | Leadership & Change Management

MANAGING THROUGH UNCERTAINTY: WHY PUBLIC SERVANTS SHOULD EMBRACE DATA SCIENCE
BETH SIMONE NOVECK, TIMI LEWIS & SAM DEJOHN, THE GOVLAB

In early March, the Trump Administration announced that the U.S. would impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. While the major shift in policy may benefit individual steel and aluminum manufacturers in America, a quick scan of U.S. Census Bureau data shows that several U.S. states rely on imports of these commodities and could be at risk. The same can be said for the other two countries within NAFTA, with Canada and Mexico among the largest sources of steel and steel products to the U.S.[i] Speculation about concessions began to surface almost immediately, but threats to U.S. industry and trade relations overall loom large.[ii] For practitioners, such uncertainty around policy is not new. However, the magnitude of potential impact across so many areas of the economy demonstrate how critical it has become for public entrepreneurs to possess data skills, with the facility to source, analyze, and ultimately act upon data-driven evidence.

 

I. Data Lends a Hand

 

While there is a broader movement toward evidence-based policymaking in public institutions, change has been incremental and slow. Institutions are moving faster to recognize the need for data literacy, but they still lack the in-house expertise to turn that data into actionable insights. Examining data between 2004 and 2014, researchers with the Pew-MacArthur Results First initiative identified over 100 state laws across 42 states that support the use of evidence-based programs and practices.[iii] However, “to produce more data-driven decision-making,” explains Beth Blauer, Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence (GovEx), “what’s needed is more investment in training those in public service.”

To this end, a growing cadre of resources are now available for public entrepreneurs seeking to develop data science and data analysis skills, some at no cost and others available for a paid fee.

For example, the Coleridge Initiative – a joint training program developed by Professors Julia Lane of New York University, Rayid Ghani and Robert George of the University of Chicago, and Frauke Kreuter of the University of Maryland – helps public sector professionals gain data science and computer science skills. With the further aim of improving the policymaking process, the initiative also seeks to build lasting capacity and knowledge, provide a platform for practitioners to collaborate and network, and supports secure facilities to host confidential data and data research. Along with the Coleridge Initiative, Rayid Ghani also leads the University of Chicago’s Data Science for Social Good Fellowship, which works with aspiring data scientists in nonprofit and government to better understand how big data, machine learning, data mining and related areas impact the social change projects they lead, and how to incorporate data skills into their everyday work.

GovEx also offers a program designed to train public officials on how to use data to improve governance, with course offerings from Johns Hopkins University, Udacity and others.[iv] The Institute on Governance based in Ottawa takes a hands-on approach by offering in-person courses such as “Data Analytics for Government Managers.” Services such as Coursera and EdX also help to fill the skills gaps for institutions and public officials alike, though targeted more to computer scientists and those with existing technical know-how. Still, these portals, partnered with leading organizations such as Google and Microsoft, serve an important function and provide access to hundreds of courses from some of the world’s top universities such as the University of Toronto, Harvard University, University of Oxford, and Tsinghua University.

Another example is “Solving Public Problems with Data,” an online video lecture series we developed at The Governance Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering to serve as a primer on using data science and data analytical thinking when developing and evaluating solutions to major social challenges. Available for free for participants, at the cost of their time, the lecture series is also a gateway to these more advanced data programs. In our work running large-scale social projects, many of the public officials we encountered desired to have a better command of data principles. They wanted to incorporate a data-mindset into their everyday work but lacked the requisite skill set. To help engaged public servants committed to working for public good, we brought together leading data scientists from different sectors and organizations – including NYU, Bloomberg, J-PAL, Cornell Tech and many more – to share what they’ve learned in a crash course for public entrepreneurs. The end result is a lecture series that dually serves public officials and the institutions they help to lead by demystifying data and making it more accessible.

 

“Growing demand for services and shrinking budgets could create a perfect storm of added pressure for governments … However, data can extend the reach of programs and services; data can also improve upon delivery and evaluation. With data science beginning to take center stage in government, there is no time like the present for the passionate public entrepreneur to develop these needed data skills.”

 

II. Why Now?

 

The benefits of training within private sector companies are well-known.[v] These same principles can be applied to the public sector with respect to data science skills. Growing demand for services and shrinking budgets could create a perfect storm of added pressure for governments already dealing with strains on their systems and low trust from the public. However, data can extend the reach of programs and services; data can also improve upon delivery and evaluation. With data science beginning to take center stage in government, there is no time like the present for the passionate public entrepreneur to develop these needed data skills.

More and more courses like “Solving Public Problems with Data” are being launched to meet practitioners where they are in their learning journey. Governments realize they do not need to start from scratch when it comes to closing the gap in demand and supply of professionals with data skills. Instead of exhausting a search for data scientists with an interest in solving public problems, they can refocus on empowering their existing pool of professionals to use data to improve decision-making and policy-making.

 

III. What Happens Next?

 

Solving for a dearth in public sector data science skills leaves open the question of what happens next. How exactly are public entrepreneurs meant to apply these newfound data skills in their everyday work? Governments collect huge stores of information better known as administrative data. Efficient policymaking and service delivery also depend upon the analysis of government’s own administrative data be it to understand past performance, effectively target current resources, or forecast future needs and outcomes.

Thus, a secondary consideration to address in parallel with training public servants is the removal of impediments – technical or otherwise – that can hinder data and knowledge sharing across departments and institutions, and subsequently cripple collective intelligence, collaboration, and innovation in problem-solving. To this end, in a post about the humanity of data science, GovEx Analyst Miriam McKinney reminds us that “Data science is collaborative. Openness and peer-peer evaluation is a necessary component of efficient data science.”[vi] She further notes that in order to effectively use data and data science, it is necessary to “employ compassionate professionals who can do more than just solve data problems. Seek to hire the conscientious, the self- and socially-aware.”

So, whether or not the U.S. moves forward with tariffs and the situation escalates to a trade war, leaning on data offers the best way to navigate the uncertainty in this and other policy arenas. Then as in now, public servants are called upon to conduct data analysis to better understand and communicate potential implications. Data will be at the center of how practitioners proceed with the next steps, making data literacy crucial for crafting policy based on evidence despite the political headwinds. Of equal importance is the need for these data specialists to possess the discipline, creativity, and experience to apply these data skills, making public entrepreneurs the optimal candidates for training.

 

BETH SIMONE NOVECK directs The Governance Lab and its MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance. She is a Professor in Technology, Culture, and Society at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. Her current research focuses on “people-led innovation,” namely the ability of communities and institutions to work together to solve problems more effectively and legitimately. 

TIMI LEWIS is Director of Communications for The GovLab. Previously, she was Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Housing Partnership Network, a nonprofit business collaborative. She also worked as an Associate with Brunswick Group, a global strategic communications consultancy, and was Director of Corporate Affairs and Strategic Planning for NYC Media, the official television, radio and digital network of New York City.

SAM DEJOHN is a Research Assistant at The GovLab who recently graduated from Penn State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. His current research focuses on governance innovations in Latin American countries and Spain. He is part of the team evaluating the Organization of American States Fellowship Program and he is conducting a study of the Decide Madrid public engagement platform. Sam contributes to The GovLab blog and serves as a communications assistant to The GovLab’s Director of Communications. He is fluent in Spanish.

 

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