Getting more value from data: What we’ve learned from piloting a new tool with local governments
Despite the growing availability of reliable data, many organizations still struggle to foster a culture of data-informed decision-making. We’d like to share what we’ve learned from piloting a new tool with local governments. The tool assesses existing data capabilities, visualizes how data flows within an organization, and facilitates the development of a data roadmap—so organizations can systematically increase their impact by improving how they collect and use data.
Around the world, public, private, and civic institutions have unprecedented opportunities to leverage the data around them to inform their decisions. Basing decisions on available information and evidence—rather than on historical practice, personal preference, or intuition—is an important step toward taking actions that cultivate just, prosperous, and inclusive societies.
Consider for example the local government in Costesti, a town in northern Moldova in Eastern Europe. Costesti’s local government is partnering with IREX on a five-year, USAID-funded program to facilitate Moldova’s decentralization process by strengthening local governance and citizen engagement.
When we visited the mayor and her team in November 2018, we observed how her team makes complex and impactful decisions, like how to prioritize and allocate their limited financial resources across a range of public services that need attention. What we learned has helped shape a year-long process to create a new tool, still under development here at IREX, that helps institutions make better data-informed decisions.
Challenges and opportunities: Understanding the current landscape of data-informed decision-making
While no two institutions are the same, our visits with the staff of local government offices across Moldova and elsewhere suggest some lessons that could be applicable across other public, civic, and private institutions.
1. Local government leaders are eager to improve how data and evidence inform their decisions
We heard ambitions from several mayors to invest in systems that can help them make decisions and monitor the progress of their investments.
In Comrat, for instance, a vice-mayor suggested that geospatial analysis software could help him see whether funds for the project are being properly spent. By allowing him to overlay maps of new and anticipated roads over old maps, the software could help his office track progress and delays in construction. This is just one example of the growing appetite to leverage data for informed decision-making.
2. Improving and scaling data use is as much about processes as it is about technical solutions
Advocates of data-informed decision-making are quick to turn to technical solutions, like software, to improve data use. Indeed, most government offices that we spoke with said that digital case management tools could help them act quicker and more effectively.
But as we spent more time with these teams, we noticed ample opportunities for cheaper, quicker, and smaller investments or changes in processes that could lead to more data-informed decision-making.
For instance, a cadastral specialist (responsible for managing GIS or location data) told us how his data about businesses’ locations can’t be accessed by an economist who has tax data that could help locate potential revenue-generating hotspots. The cadastral specialist must take the time generate and export reports or maps on demand.
What efficiencies could be realized by helping the economist access and use the location database directly? Could this allow the economist to work faster and engage with the data at a deeper level, while freeing up the cadastral specialist to focus on more advanced work? In a road toward data-informed decision-making that’s laden with shiny software and datasets, small but mighty process tweaks can make a big difference.
3. Local government staff are often trained and incentivized to collect and report data, not to proactively engage with it
Decades of nationally centralized decision-making processes have ingrained a process of data collection and reporting that is largely done in a rote way that aims to “extract” data rather than encourage true engagement with it.
In Moldova, accountants are particularly burdened with systems and processes for reporting to the Ministry of Finance. This daily practice of “upstream” reporting alienates local decision-makers from the opportunity to critically engage with this information. Local personnel may feel like “data couriers,” who are only allowed to collect information, compile it, and send it to higher authorities.
This makes data a burden, rather an opportunity—particularly when a local government is asked to report on hard-to-collect data, such as the number of animals in their locality.
4. Processes to collect, share, and utilize data for decision-making are largely ad hoc and uncoordinated
Particularly in small and midsize towns, local government staff may find themselves leaning on informal processes and personal relationships to collect important data.
An accountant told us how she calls her personal contacts at social institutions (like kindergartens, youth clubs, and sports club) to get confirmation of transactions that she needs to report. Interoperability between systems—especially between accounting software, GIS software, tax software, and other software imposed by national requirements—was widely cited as a challenge to effective data use.
The cost of ad-hoc processes like these is compounded in public institutions like local government offices in Moldova, where high staff turnover yields redundant onboarding efforts and lost institutional memory that’s vital for data sharing and decision-making.
5. Data does not always need to be digital
Software is not always the best solution for a particular data problem. To support institutions’ strategic use of data, we must be mindful about imposing digital solutions where analog systems are already effective.
For example, in Costesti, the town hall secretary collects and stores thousands of records of letters and phone calls from citizens requesting services (like firewood delivery or construction permits or spending inquiries) in binders on a shelf. This data is accessible, neatly organized, and relatively clean. The secretary’s analog system meets the town’s needs in a way that is appropriate for the town’s budget, staffing, and use cases.
In Ialoveni, geographic data (like satellite images of the community) is locked away in specialized software, but offline printed maps were readily available in most offices. In these cases, investing in “map literacy” across the team could encourage more team members, aside from cadastral specialists, to take that location information into account as they make decisions about where to prioritize limited resources.
Together, these insights paint a complex picture in which institutions’ ambitions to utilize data for decision-making are contradicted by an ad-hoc, burdensome, and extractive system, complicated by national and donor-imposed systems that aren’t interoperable or perceived as useful at the local level.
Piloting a new tool to make data-informed decision-making more strategic, coordinated, and effective
As we met with local governments to learn how they incorporate data into their decision-making, they shared one fundamental insight with us: this was their first time reflecting intentionally as a team about their data-use practices. They told us it was useful to have a structured conversation about their strengths and gaps pertaining to strategic, institutionalized data use.
Guided by this perspective, IREX has been developing a tool to help institutions foster a culture of strategic data-informed decision-making. We’ve been developing this tool with close input from local and national public and civic organizations. Part diagnostic and part planning tool, it guides organizations through an assessment and roadmap process that includes:
- helping teams or organizations assess their strengths and weaknesses for using data along eight dimensions, including the “human” side of data use, such as perceived value of datasets, or decision-making literacy,
- visualizing data flows, using data collected remotely, to identify opportunities to turn extractive data reporting into data use for internal decision-making, and
- developing a plan for implementing specific, tangible actions to improve data use for decision-making.
Having developed the tool in Moldova in April 2019, we’ll soon refine the prototype with local governments in East Africa, giving us insights about the tool’s adaptability in different contexts.
We’re not by any means the first to explore ways to understand and improve data-informed decision-making. Efforts abound to assess data maturity, cultivate data mindsets, foster data cultures, and measure institutional data readiness, and each offers important contributions to this space. Our tool addresses some potential gaps in these existing approaches, with an emphasis on supporting institutions to internalize and reuse this tool over time to support its sustainable integration into their work.
The “human side” of data is just as important as the “technology side”
While we’re excited about our progress with developing this tool, important context and caution underpin our approach to supporting institutions to make data-informed decisions. We’re wary of the risks of focusing too much on technocratic notions of data—elements like infrastructure, technology, and datasets—while ignoring the “human side” of data use: political economies, personal preferences, incentives and disincentives, and power dynamics that dictate the context in which data might or might not be used for decision-making.
For instance, earlier we suggested that a cadastral engineer could share access to GIS software with an economist who could layer datasets on location information. How might this affect power dynamics between the two actors?
Or let’s imagine that a team could seamlessly merge disparate datasets to unveil new insights that inform a decision. Those team leaders need soft skills to accurately and ethically interpret the data.
And particularly in the context of local governments undergoing decentralization reforms, how much influence over financial decision-making will the central state want to maintain?
We’re excited about developing a tool that can meaningfully assess an institution’s readiness to make use of data to inform decisions, by taking into account these political economies and social dynamics that play an important role in data use. Developing this tool with regular input from institutions like local governments ensures we remain grounded and responsive to users’ needs.
Looking ahead, we envision convening a community of users who are adapting the tool to their own needs, sharing their insights with other organizations, and collectively advancing our shared ambitions of strategic and systematic data-informed decision-making.
In early 2020, we will also explore the possibility of offering this tool to NGOs and civil society organizations. If you work at an NGO or CSO and you are interested in potentially using this tool to foster evidence-based decision-making in your own organization, please contact Josh Tong at firstname.lastname@example.org.