Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset Part II: Decision-Making and Accountability

In late June, the Department of Commerce created an opportunity to share input on the Federal Data Strategy by requesting comments on the Cross-Agency Priority goal of Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset. The Department of Commerce specifically requested comments on best practices related to the four pillars of the federal data strategy:

  1. Enterprise Data Governance
  2. Access, Use, and Augmentation
  3. Decision-Making and Accountability
  4. Commercialization, Innovation, and Public Use.

Given that data is a critical component of Third Sector’s work in outcomes-oriented contracting, we were happy to share perspective from our experience (which is available in full here). In this two-part blog series, we’ll explore how two of the pillars of the Federal Data Strategy can accelerated improved outcomes in social services. Part I shared some of our thinking on challenges and solutions to encourage access, use, and augmentation. Part II below explains how collecting outcomes data could transform decision-making and accountability in the social services.

Data informs everything in the private sector from developing the next microprocessor to determining how much to charge for a hamburger, but government decisions are largely determined by static heuristics and back-of-envelope estimations. Bringing government decision-making and accountability out of the dark would substantively inform and strengthen government services.  

The third pillar of the Federal Data Strategy relates to Decision-making and Accountability, including:

  • Providing high-quality and timely information to inform decision-making and learning
  • Facilitating external research on the effectiveness of government programs and policies which will inform future policymaking
  • Fostering public accountability and transparency by providing accurate and timely spending information, performance metrics, and other administrative data.

One of the central beliefs underpinning Third Sector’s efforts to bring better results to social services is that outcomes-oriented agreements can help governments and providers make better decisions and ensure accountability to what matters most.

Typical social services programs use a cost-reimbursement structure that focuses effort on compliance and reporting on uninformative measures. For instance, a government agency might reimburse providers based on self-reported inputs like staff-hours dedicated, the number of client referrals, or a per day fee for client participation. The effect is that much of the information governments collect is related to compliance rather than what we would actually like to know about the populations being served. In addition to simply not collecting the information needed to drive resource allocation decisions, this structure incentivizes behavior that is irrelevant (or even detrimental) to rewarding the most effective programs. It is difficult to hold an agency or provider accountable if we don’t know what impact the program has on life outcomes.

We envision a world where local, state, and federal agencies collect and use data on the outputs and outcomes that meaningfully relate to a program’s impact. For example, many workforce programs today may collect data on the number of client referrals, the number of hours in training, or when participants finish a specific training module. Funding is decided through a compliance review and referral flow. We can see a world where that funding decision is made through data that reveals how much people thrived after services, like wage growth or job stability long after the training module ends. While compliance is still a part of good governance, everyone (funders and providers included) can see their impact and be held accountable to the needs of those receiving services. Federal outcomes measures that could inform decision-making and accountability in workforce programs include:

  • Employment Retention Rates (ERR)
  • Occupation Codes
  • Wage growth

These outcome measures would allow agencies to confidently evaluate what they are paying providers for and how lives change as a result of participation. To realize that vision, outcome data must be available, used to impact decisions, and be accessible across office boundaries. Reducing barriers to existing federal data would inform decision-making and learning, aid external research on program effectiveness, and increase accountability to performance metrics.

Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset: Part I Access, Use, and AugmentationThe federal government possesses one of the greatest untapped resources in our nation: administrative data. Substantive changes to access, use, and augmentation of administrative data would unleash tremendous value by improving outcomes for millions of people who use local, state, and federal services.