Building An Analytics Culture

on October 23, 2012 at 8:00 AM

How well are you doing and how do you know?

For many federal agencies, answering these questions can be intimidating, because, frankly, measuring mission impact is hard.

How prepared are people for a natural disaster or man-made emergency? How secure is the aviation industry from the threat of attack? How safe are our foods, toys or medical devices? How do you identify fraud and prevent improper payments? These are just a sampling of the questions federal agencies grapple with every day.

To answer them, agencies are turning to analytics. Building an analytics program sounds intimidating, but it is really the process of collecting data and turning it into information and insights that leaders can use to make decisions.

Using analytics is at the heart of any organization’s ability to know how well it is performing and what it can do better. It’s also helpful in communicating the impact of work to key stakeholders – a particularly important need given today’s scrutiny of how public dollars are being spent and the necessity for federal managers to defend their programs.

The use of analytics in the federal government varies greatly from agency to agency, and even office to office. Some agencies are just starting to try this approach, while others have been using data for decades to set goals and measure progress. Regardless of where agencies are on the spectrum of sophistication, though, they are clearly hungry to learn more and do it better.

Last week, the Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for The Business of Government released a guide to help agencies build a culture of analytics. The guide was developed from interviews with agency representatives who are using analytics in the day-to-day operations of their programs, and focused on how they got their analytics programs up and running, what conditions helped them grow and where the challenges were most likely to be encountered.

Here is a bit of advice from the report:

Building an analytics culture starts by understanding what you are working to achieve. Go back to the basics and map out what you set out accomplish, what activities you are doing to achieve the goals, and how those activities and goals support the broader mission. Then you can ask how well you are doing in each of those activities and how you know. You work from there to determine what can be measured and reported over time, and how that information can be used to improve performance. The key is to do it systematically and consistently.

You have to make it the way you do business. Leaders at every level need to commit to using analytics to drive their decision making. They set the vision and model the behavior they expect of others. So to get an analytics program ingrained in the way you do business, you have to be relentless in making decisions based on facts. Leaders also have to be sure to use analytics to improve performance, not to cast blame. This is integral to dispelling fear and getting everyone on board.

You have to get the people piece right. As with the success of just about any endeavor, who you choose to lead the effort is critically important. Particularly as you are starting an analytics program, it’s the people who will persuade others this effort is worth their time, it’s the people who will collaborate across programs or units to ask the challenging questions, and it’s the people who will share the lessons learned and insights gained so that others want to participate. Getting the people piece right, and finding that persuasive, super-collaborator will be a big part of your success.

These are challenging times for federal agencies and the pressure is on for them to explain what they do, why they do it and whether or not their approaches are making an impact. Using analytics is the key to successfully answering these questions, and it is an essential component of good government. Agencies have a long way to go, but the good news is they can learn from each other.

To read more about the report’s findings, click here. Or to read the full report, please visit or or download it here.

Lara Shane is vice president for research and communications at the Partnership for Public Service.