State turns to tech for deeper, speedier data analysis

Gov. Mike Pence's rollout of a new, $9 million government management system earlier this month focused a fair amount on its bells and whistles. But underlying the new system, which the governor promised will make government more efficient and transparent, is a plan to better use troves of government data and predict how tax dollars should be allocated.

The Management and Performance Hub system is drawing praise from someone who knows all about government innovation: former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, now a professor of government management at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Goldsmith has been stoking talk of Indiana's system among governing insiders and with his recently released book, "The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance."

The book examines some better-known examples of improvements in municipal services, including Boston's development between 2006 and 2008 of a then-revolutionary mobile app for reporting potholes and other problems. But Goldsmith includes the promise of improved service for states, too, with a nod to Indiana.

"At the state level, we ought to be able to figure (this) out," Goldsmith said. "You know, we issue a lot of licenses and a lot of permits. So why do we treat everybody equally badly? Why not figure out who the good actors are and fast-track them and then concentrate your resources on bad restaurants, or bad doctors or bad whatever?"

Goldsmith was known during his time in Indianapolis as much for his efforts to privatize public services as being a taskmaster and demanding boss.

What has him excited about Indiana's prospects are improvements in technology that allow broader, deeper and speedier analysis of the troves of data that government have always had access to.

For instance, Goldsmith said, Department of Child Services caseworkers could get better access to information immediately, when they're on site visits throughout the state. Looking at information like whether the child's parents have been convicted of violent crimes would enable workers in the field to predict the likelihood a child is being abused, based in part on previous data from child abuse cases.

"Our new systems allow us to mine data. The new systems don't have to talk to each other. We just grab this data and analyze it. And now we can predict, and once we predict, then we can reorganize our resources," he said.

Asked of another state doing similar work with data and management, he picked out Maryland and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's StateStat program. O'Malley's statistical analysis and management program has won accolades from government management types for years now, but is itself an outgrowth of New York City's CompStat program started in the mid-90s.

In many ways, Pence's new system will test the political rhetoric claiming that government is inefficient and wasteful. In the past, statements of that type were supported with anecdote and exaggeration. Now, at least theoretically, they can be supported with hard data and analysis—something Pence is likely to tap into when he presents his next budget to state lawmakers in January and argues to eliminate some programs.

Pence's hub isn't a completely new idea for the state. In his book, Goldsmith notes that some of this data-mining and data-sharing was already tested at Indiana's Department of Child Services under former director James Payne. Payne succeeded in getting other agencies to share their data with DCS workers, effectively breaking a "silo" mentality that management wonks abhor.

And reliance on data and statistics is hardly a cure-all. One of the most crippling scandals of O'Malley's tenure—involving Baltimore City prison guards sleeping with imprisoned gang leaders—erupted last year, following more than a decade of StateStat and CitiStat rule in the city and the Maryland Statehouse.

Similarly, improved data-sharing was not enough to fend off widespread problems at DCS, including widely reported child deaths and a high burnout rate for caseworkers, as well as the resignation of Payne himself amid reports that he used his office to benefit his family.

The test for Pence and his team will come as he applies this new tool in the coming months and years. Goldsmith, who notes that he talks with the governor periodically, but hesitates to call himself an adviser, is optimistic about Pence's chances.

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