The use of dashboards in the federal government took off when President Obama released his Open Government initiative in early 2009. Here’s a snapshot of where they are today, and some lessons learned from the pioneers.

Vivek Kundra is leaving the federal government after having served as its first chief information officer. Probably one of his most visible initiatives was to create the IT Dashboard which he used to publicly track the performance of information technology investments across federal agencies. There’s even a picture of President Obama studying Vivek’s on-line IT Dashboard!

But Kundra also brought the use of dashboards into the mainstream. After his pioneering efforts, dashboards are being used across government agencies as diverse as the Food and Drug Administration and the Patent and Trademark Office. The recently-passed GPRA Modernization Act will likely create a broader demand for the use of dashboards more broadly, since it requires regular agency-level progress review sessions.

So what are dashboards, and how are they used?

A new report for the IBM Center by Dr. Sukumar Ganapati, “Using Dashboards in Government” provides a snapshot into the internal and external uses of dashboards as ways of monitoring performance and providing accountability and transparency in large organizations.

Ganapati says: “Dashboards summarize key performance metrics of organzations. They typically integrate data from different sources and display performance measures through informative graphics. The visualization allows readers to understand complex data in less time than it would take to read similar material in the text of a full report.

He says there are different types of dashboards:

  • operational (for monitoring in real time such as call centers or air traffic control);
  • tactical (for analysis and benchmarking such as welfare caseload processing); and
  • strategic (such as balanced scorecards of agency performance).

The report includes case studies of selected federal dashboards which show the variety of designs and measures that can be used:the IT Dashboard created by Kundra;

  • two federal financial transparency dashboards (USASpending.gov and Recovery.gov);
  • two agency specific dashboards (Food and Drug Administration’s FDA-TRACK, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Organization’s Data Visualization Center).

Ganapati concludes with four lessons that derive from his snapshot of dashboards:

  1. Data quality is key to the credibility of dashboard performance measures. Quality is being built into data, Ganapati says, by using “standardized data definitions and training of key agency personnel.” He says adopting a standard schema such as the Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) for financial dashboards “would enhance data quality and reporting efficiency.”
  2. Resources for best practices are necessary in the design and use of dashboards. A website, such as usability.gov, for standardizing dashboards or being a repository for best practices would be a useful resource for agencies.
  3. Performance measures should reflect organization goals. Measures should be aligned with agency goals and evolve “in response to different audience needs.
  4. Dashboards are only tools; effectiveness depends on their use. Dashboards can be highly effective in helping agency leaders visualize and interpret performance data from multiple sources, but there has to be a clear effort to ensure they are used by internal decision makers. When used for external accountability purposes, such as recovery.gov, “both the dashboard performance measures and the underlying data need to be publicly accessible” to ensure organizational credibility.

John Kamensky is a Senior Fellow with the IBM Center of The Business of Government, where this article was originally published. He is also Associate Partner with IBM’s Global Business Services and spent 24 years working in the public sector, including the Government Accountability Office.